In October 1976, the photographer William Eggleston traveled from his home in Memphis to Plains, Georgia, the home town of Jimmy Carter, who was days away from winning the presidency. He took pictures along the way, most of them in and around Plains. The results were first published in a very limited edition entitled Election Eve, a slightly edited version of which will be republished later this month by Steidl.
In his insightful introduction, included in both the original edition and the forthcoming mass market version, the late screenwriter and essayist Lloyd Fonvielle cautions us not to expect the pictures of campaign signs, rallies, voter canvassing, or any of the other usual images that deluge us around election time. The pictures Eggleston “brought back from Plains are anything but obvious,” he writes. “The photographs are characterized by a quietude and unsentimental romanticism, as well as an edge of poignancy, which belie any expectations of hopefulness or portentousness suggested by a knowledge of the time and place in which they were made. On the eve of the election, when nothing had yet been decided, when everything—whatever that everything was—hung in the balance, Eggleston made an elegy ... a statement of perfect calm.”
As a visual artist, Eggleston has spent his life “at war with the obvious,” as he once so memorably put it. It has been his battle cry throughout what is now a long and distinguished career as the most influential color photographer of our time and one of the most influential photographers of any kind, ever.
He, like Emily Dickinson, likes to “tell the truth but tell it slant.” If you looked at this book without knowing its title, you would probably not know an election loomed. Only one photo shows a Carter for President bumper sticker.
What we do see is a world somehow both timeless and yet bound by time. This is not the world as mediated by news reporters and photographers but the world you see every day. There is nothing “important” here. One of Eggleston’s major collections is called The Democratic Forest, and it exemplifies his idea that every piece of creation is worth examining. So, too, do these pictures. A landmark presidential campaign is happening just around the corner, just out of the frame of Eggleston’s camera. Knowing that—knowing how much clamor he had to evade to capture these quiet, meditative pictures—we see these pictures for the powerful things they are: still moments before everything changed, before Plains forever lost its anonymity as a little rural hub for peanut farmers.
In a world where increasingly every utterance, right down to hello and goodbye, potentially carries some political message, where we feel as though there’s no escaping politics even for a second, this book is something to treasure: a quiet meditation on the rural South, on the ravages of time and the nature’s indifference to the shenanigans of man. It is a world that contains politics, on its verges at least, but it is not a world consumed by politics. Here is a world where everything is accorded at least some dignity and always paid the respect of unflagging attention. It is a long gone world, and a world that lives forever, thanks to this book. Be grateful William Eggleston took that trip.