I love this photograph. I love the way that your first reaction is probably to wonder why you’re looking at it. It’s just a bare, unlit lightbulb, hanging from a badly-painted crimson ceiling that meets badly painted crimson walls; it’s not art.
The perspective grates. This isn’t the normal view of a room—the photographer must have been standing on something, or, possibly, holding the camera above his head, relying on the machine, not his eye, to frame the image for him.
Three cables snake out from the bulb, like sclerotic arteries. You wonder where they’re going. One leads to a black light, again unlit. You’re drawn to the dayglo poster beneath: it looks instructional in some way. On closer inspection, you realise it’s a menu of sexual positions. And the figurative lightbulb comes on. You’re in a room in a brothel.
But the crimson walls and ceilings aren’t remotely erotic, they’re a frightening, glossy, dark arterial-red. And the way the cables dissect the image reminds you of the Confederate battle flag, and all the hate and bitterness over which that has flown. This is a room soaked in menace and dread. Dark things have happened here, and that strange, grating perspective starts to make you wonder what it is you’re not looking at. What has the photographer spared you from seeing? What’s on that bed that you imagine lies underneath that bare bulb?
The photograph is titled Greenwood, Mississippi, and was shot by William Eggleston in 1973. It’s hard to imagine quite how fresh—and how shocking—Eggleston’s photography was when his first major solo show opened at MOMA three years later. Until Eggleston, colour was the refuge of advertising scoundrels and artless amateurs. High art was black-and-white; artfully composed or contrived to appear like a happy accident.
Greenwood, Mississippi is William Eggleston’s artistic high tide mark. As it pools all over the print, the saturated red pulls the viewer in with car-crash compulsion. Eggleston claims he shot the room simply because red is a difficult colour to capture, but the shot is drenched in the threat, or suggestion, of violence that pervades much of his work: the girl on the lawn, whose red buttons make her look like the innocent victim of a random drive-by shooting; the abondoned tricycle the signal that dinner is ready, or the only trace of a missing child?
And this art is shocking – not simply because it demands you view the world from a different perspective, the arbitrary act of framing and publishing making you examine objects you wouldn’t give a second glance to in real life, but also because it makes you creatively complicit, forcing you to write a narrative, frequently one you don’t want to read.