Stevan A. Baron on William Eggleston
From The Berlin Series © William Eggleston, published in Aperture magazine issue 96, Fall 1984
Stevan A. Baron worked at Aperture Foundation for forty years before retiring in 2003. As Production Director, he supervised the printing of over 500 projects, including some of Aperture’s most significant titles like Paul Strand: An American Vision, Workers by Sabastião Salgado, and numerous books by Robert Glenn Ketchum.
Recently, Baron was asked to document some of his most memorable experiences at Aperture. One of his favorites follows:
William Eggleston. In my 40 years there, Aperture never made a book of his photos. We only got as far as including some then-new work, quite different from what I knew, in Aperture magazine. In the early 80s, Aperture‘s long-time senior editor, Carole Kismaric, disappeared from the office for a couple of days. On her first day back, she stopped by my desk and dropped a half dozen 4” x 6″ drugstore prints in front of me, and remained silent. I’d seen Eggleston’s book, William Eggleston’s Guide (1976) from MoMA once or twice, but never his prints. So my first question to Carole was, “Am I supposed to reproduce from these?” thinking that they were for the magazine and I’d be expected to perform a little quality magic that Walgreens had missed. And my second thought was, “Can’t you get better prints?” which she had heard from me a hundred times before. I still wasn’t registering that they were the work of one of our premier living photographers and that obtaining his photos in a day or two was something special. Then, following a lightning bolt of understanding, I was thrilled and said, “Oh, these are Eggleston’s, aren’t they? How was your trip?” I was, of course, pleased and excited that she had returned with his prints, regardless of their drugstore quality.
What surprised me most was that there was a kind of long-term continuity in the photographer’s seeing going back some years, including William Eggleston’s Guide, which I couldn’t explain. This continuity allowed easy identification of the photographer from looking at a few prints. “Pallet” might be the best word to describe the source of that continuity. I don’t remember much of Carole’s description of her trip, except that Eggleston was a genuine southern gentleman and that they’d had more than one drink together. Maybe she included that he lived somewhat grandly and decadently too.
Many years later, in February 2009, I was in New York City. High on my to-do list was a visit to the Whitney Museum to see their major retrospective of Eggleston’s work. My first response was amusement, but that soon turned to sadness and loneliness. Cynicism didn’t apply; his pictures were too personal and too painful. Three pictures included guns; three included chains. The many portraits of Nashville lowlife were especially depressing. Pickers in the fields made quite an impression and, for me, probably the strongest picture was of an African-American girl standing by a bright green field and an endless road. The exhibition included a couple of beautiful books, limited-edition prints, and a few of the old drugstore prints, but it was mostly Eggleston’s large format dye-transfers—one of the captions indicated that he had perfected this printing technique years ago. There were four video screens showing the same drunken group of musicians being boisterous and rowdy. One could imagine that this group and the still photos of their friends could indeed be Eggleston’s friends, but I have no definitive evidence of this.
One way of defining an artist is by whether or not he influences the next generation of artists. William Eggleston certainly passes muster on this point.