William Eggleston’s images have been referred to as “the beginning of modern color photography.” He gained equal amounts of notoriety and acclaim with his 1976 one-man exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. The focus of Eggleston’s work, on the most surface level, is fractured visions of Americana: burned out gas stations, cragged faces of Midwesterners, blue skies, and bright red automobiles. William Eggleston in the Real World follows Eggleston in action as he takes pictures in the streets and local stores of Mayfield, Kentucky, followed by visits to Los Angeles, New York, and Eggleston’s home city Memphis, unfolding in a rough hand-held video format, narrated by director Michael Almereyda himself, who shares his impressions of Eggleston. Watching the artist snapping photographs, one might expect an intimate portrait of Eggleston to emerge—but he’s a remote subject, not quick to analyze or even discuss his work. Instead, we learn far more about the Almereyda’s taste, sensibility, and curiosities, which says a great deal about a viewer’s individual response to art. In a strange way, this documentary should have been called Michael Almereyda: A Portrait by William Eggars.
What Almereyda sees in Eggleston’s work are the things that seem to drive Almereyda’s films: life as a continual paradox. In Almereyda’s vampire film Nadja, the dead travel fast, and the ancient and the modern exist side-by-side in his Hamlet. As Almereyda speaks about Eggleston’s photographs, he discusses the work as “hiding in plain sight,” “familiar and strange, recognizable and indelible,” “a part of a thing can reflect a whole…a wider truth,” “an unbalanced emotion between fear and love…” It’s a personal, revealing take on Eggleston. Almereyda shows the distance between spectator and subject during a climactic interview with Eggleston where the filmmaker asks the artist to discuss the work in terms of a paradox. The artist shakes his head, perhaps annoyed, muttering, “That doesn’t make any sense to me.”
Sense and taste is an internal process, often inarticulate, yet the viewer can make connections for himself. During the closing credits, Eggleston sits smoking a cigarette listening to Roy Orbison singing “In The Real World.” He says that it’s beautiful. Earlier in the documentary, we’ve seen Eggleston making music on his home piano and discussing how he wishes he could distill photographs from his dreams. Orbison sings, “If only we could make of life/What, in dreams, it seems.” Be careful, though. To try and explain what music does to us, or what a photograph is to the spectator, is to analyze the dream. But as another New York filmmaker once told me, a dream is an undoing—and to analyze a dream is to undo the undoing. And to call Almereyda’s documentary an essay about the “dilemma of spectatorship” seems like a reduction, too. Lest things get too hoary and pretentious, Almereyda retains a wry sense of humor. At one point when discussing Eggleston’s work, he praises the artist by saying a series of photographs appear to have been taken by the family dog.