Graceland through the lens of William Eggleston. Remember King Tut? Here's King Strut.
Elvis Presley was a real American excess story. In Eggleston's photographs of Graceland, Presley's home, are the courtly pleasures of a portly king, cemented away in grandiose cabinets. Someone once said it looked as if Presley had furnished his home by shopping at every roadside stand in Tennessee, never throwing anything out of Graceland but human beings. These photographs confirm, enforce and glorify that idea.
Images of Elvis:
* A nine-foot grand piano, its every inch encased in gold leaf.
* Thickly hung drapes so sea blue that to touch them is to come away wet.
* Acres of mirrors. They catch the edges of a room, but there's always something to block the centered gaze--a sunburst of clock, a sudden piece of furniture, a portrait from the past.
These are just some of the images from "William Eggleston's Graceland," a show of stunning color photographs and dye-transfer prints opening today at the Middendorf Gallery on Columbia Road. But this exhibit is not just about Presley.
Eggleston's images don't tell you anything. But they suggest everything. Presley, once the most recognized man on earth, is revealed as much in his absence as he was by his presence.
This was his home, the realization of his empty dreams, his proof against the night.
Versailles without the bloodlines.
San Simeon without the taste.
Now Graceland is a temple, a museum, a mausoleum, home only to Aunt Delta Biggs and the myth ghosts that will continue to haunt the American heartland for decades.
A perfect subject for William Eggleston.
He had been called in the spring, asked by a friend if he was "interested in shooting Presley's house." Despite being Memphis-born, Tennessee- and Mississippi-educated, Eggleston had never been to Graceland. "I had always wanted to, but never been," he says softly. "I know a lot of people who always intended to go."
The original impetus was the Presley estate's need for new pictures for its Graceland tour book. But the 44-year-old Eggleston is not exactly your standard commercial photographer. He took up photography at 18, moved to color exclusively in 1966 and by the early '70s had become a master of the dye-transfer print, a craft-printing photographic method that allows tremendous control over color relations and intensity. Considered one of the true innovators and masters of the color field, Eggleston became a celebrity as well in 1976 when the Museum of Modern Art, in a controversial move, gave him its first major one-man exhibition of color photography.
Eggleston portfolios have subsequently become hot items in the photography market: a limited-edition folio of eleven 20-by-24 dye-transfer prints from the "Graceland" show is selling for $20,000. The Middendorf Gallery represents Eggleston, and his show, which runs through Jan. 7, will also include another dozen images, some for sale, some there just to complement the folio.
Although it took Eggleston "a second" to say he was "absolutely interested" in shooting Graceland, it took him longer to accept the assignment. He had to know that he would be able to take away "some images" for himself.
And so he took the public tour, went in as open-eyed as any fan. And saw the edges and corners of the Presley myth, and without really understanding it any better than anyone else, accepted it, absorbed its waste and its rewards and knew that he would go back.
He still wasn't sure why he had been asked--"I couldn't imagine they had seen my work"--so Eggleston showed Priscilla Presley some of his earlier portfolios, "Southern Suite" and "Troubled Waters." It is work as roots-rich and deeply southern as Faulkner, the artistic vision tempered by empathy. "There's a chance, considering my background, I might be able to see that better," Eggleston says. "I could still see it as an oddity, but not as a complete oddity.
"I think they were pleased that it was someone from Memphis, someone who had grown up in the city, in the South." Presley's relatives were still reeling from the sensationalized biography by Albert Goldman, and if they didn't know exactly what they wanted from Eggleston, they certainly had an idea of what they didn't want. "I think that had a lot to do with why they asked me to do it," he says. "All through our conversations, I was kind of asked to present it in . . . I don't know what the right word is . . . not to Goldmanize it . . . any other word just doesn't quite fit. I told 'em I thought I knew what they were talking about."
The Presley myth, Eggleston admits, had both fascinated him and put him off. "It was too big a subject to just do a small corner of it. In the back of my mind, I always felt if I was asked to do it, it would give me a pass to do anything." And that's the pass he was given.
He had come through the front door with the Graceland tour. In August, he became a backdoor man. "Once the public left, I was a ghoul," Eggleston laughs. "After the sun went down, I would come out of the coffin until 9 o'clock the next morning. I was the only person in the house, except occasionally for his aunt, a very nice lady, Aunt Delta Biggs, who still lives there. But she'd go back to bed and not worry."
Inside--and that's the focal heart of the pictures because "more happened there"--Eggleston soaked in the atmosphere of the rooms. It was, he says, exhausting. "It was so hard to get started. There was something oppressive about the environment, though it was hard to push it all off on Elvis. I got that feeling of 'heavy.' You can tell it when you're walking into some historical site. I knew it was a big theme, but I didn't know how much."
During the 2 1/2 months spent shooting (with both a 35mm camera and a larger format 6x9), there would be nights when no photographs were taken. Most of the images were long, artificially lit exposures, a painterly technique that gives the photographs great warmth and depth.
All of Graceland's windows were heavily draped, and, as with the guitar-ornamented gate at the entrance, one wondered whether this was to shut the fans out or to shut Presley in. "Most of the time very little sunlight ever got inside that house," Eggleston says somberly.
Then there were the mirrors, tons of them. They made it "almost impossible" for Eggleston to shoot. "It took me forever to do this, even though the mirrors are not the kind that you see yourself in. Very rarely. I'm not saying he was conscious of this, but the mirrors are around things, not mirrors that you look into. I don't remember ever seeing one of those around there."
Eggleston's earlier work often seemed a conspiracy of attachments between natural and artificial color. In "Graceland," it seems that all color, all light, all life is artificial, whether it be Elvis' army uniform and militia flag, a pinball machine, an old Gibson guitar leaning against a gaudy motorcycle, a yellow naugahyde bar, even the muted blackness of shoes in a closet. It's easy to feel that nobody's been home for a long time. In banality Elvis found beauty. So does Eggleston.
And everywhere, the color is supra-real. The dye-transfer prints in particular exude a sharpness, a sense of detail suffused with warmth. These photographs, with their careful ordering of natural space, are beautifully composed, but without color they would be merely interesting.
"As a rule, my pictures fall all to pieces in black-and-white," says Eggleston, who is part of the first generation of photographers to compose in color. "They've always done that. A good color picture, when all its colors are gone, shouldn't really have anything; otherwise there's no reason for the color."
He was allowed to go where no one else was, the death room included. But not to Elvis' bedroom. "Nobody's allowed there, even the people who run the place. It's bolted, locked, the stairwell's walled off. It's exactly as if someone had left the day before."
And so he spent his nights examining the other 22 rooms, the grounds, the spirit. "It's not a huge house," he says. "That's the first thing that struck me. It's as if so many of the people who come in there grew up in a little 10-by-15 two-room shack. To them, it looks like a big palace.
"The myth makes it bigger. When you go in there, you know where you are. I've been in many places bigger than that and it ain't the same place."
Whatever place it is, Eggleston has been inside. His work lets us in, too. Briefly.