“There is no particular reason to search for meaning… A picture is what it is and I’ve never noticed that it helps to talk about them, or answer specific questions about them, much less volunteer information in words.”
Bold words from Eggleston. No doubt many people have asked him about the meaning of his pictures and no doubt he has read what other people think his pictures are about. But he has chosen to remain silent and let his work speak for itself. Therefore theory is the only way to attach meaning to his work.
Theory is the exploration of any number of clues to attempt to construct meaning or to interpret a work. So let us ask, what do we know?
Eggleston was active in the 1960’s and came to be recognised in the 1970’s.
He was an early adopter of colour.
He took pictures of his home town, Memphis.
He captured familiar scenes; a boy collecting supermarket trolleys, a child’s toy on the sidewalk, cars, houses and shops.
In the absence of Eggleston’s own commentary, we can theorise that Eggleston was an innovator. That he saw value and a form of beauty in his own environment. That he had the vision to lift familar scenes and objects into arresting images. We could go on with these chains of speculation, but in the absence of Eggleston’s confirmation, our thoughts will remain literally, theory.
I refer to Eggleston because he is particularly inscrutable. He offers us nothing but the picture. The only meaning is that which we theorise.
But suppose we want our images to have meaning, to carry a message? We have to either employ visual codes, support our images with text or present the images in a clearly defined context that sets the meaning for the viewer.
Let us consider the picture at the top of this piece. It was taken at Rye Harbour for my research project that looks out at human relationships with a rapidly changing natural world.
If this picture makes it into the final portfolio of the project, it will be presented in the context of a project which will be titled and sub-titled to show my intentions in making and showing the pictures.
I may present the picture with supporting text which made clear my thoughts in making the picture. I felt that there was an interesting juxtaposition between an obviously man-made structure and a wild, open area that was neither entirely dry land or water.
Then there are the clues within the picture itself. The circle is obviously man-made, but vulnerable to the world around it. The circle is a vantage point from which to observe the water, but is no protection against the water. The marshlands are vast compared to the circle. And so on.
These clues are ambiguous, but those who go looking for clues, are likely to see a suggestion of human relations with the natural world and our vulnerability in the face of it.
So I am presented with a choice. How explicit do I want the meaning of my pictures to be? Am I happy to be as inscrutable as Eggleston, happy with the viewer to take away whatever meaning they want, or none? Or do I want to herd my viewer towards a meaning that I have defined? Which then becomes a decision about which, if any, clues do I want to leave for the viewer to find.
In terms of my practice to date, I have not really had to face this set of choices. My images are for my own pleasure. If my viewers get something from the pictures, that’s fine. If they don’t, that’s fine too. I have been an Eggleston without the fame.
But taking on a project with a specific focus, albeit self-imposed, has moved me to a new place. I need to start checking my clues and where they lie. Do I shout or whisper my meaning?