As an art and design student, I had to write papers on art and design quite often. It has been a while since I have done that. I feel like now is the time for me to get back into it by talking about an untitled portrait by the American photographer William Eggleston. Probably one of my favourites. Before I begin, here’s a disclaimer: what you are about to read is my sole and unique interpretation of the artist’s piece.
In 2016 I went to the National Portrait Gallery in London to see William Eggleston’s exhibition. It was the second time that I saw one of his exhibits. The first time was in 2014 in Paris, at the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation. I was astonished by his photographs, their compositions as well as their colours.
One picture stood out more than the others. It is an untitled portrait of his uncle, Adyn Schuyler Senior, in a dark suit, standing by a white car with his hands in the pockets of his trousers. Behind him, a black man wearing a white blazer and black trousers is standing in the same posture. Jasper Staples is Adyn’s assistant/driver/butler. Both men are looking in the same direction, in what appears to be a park by a lake in fall.
I found this photograph extremely powerful because of what it represents to me: the Afro-American history. I don’t claim to be an expert on the matter, nor am I one in art history or photography. However, because I have studied visual communications in art school, and because I have read a lot about Afro-American history during my teenage years, I have a certain understanding of these subjects – even though I am not American at all. I feel that this photograph is not just a portrait of the artist’s family, but a representation of America and its history regarding white and black communities.
If we look closely, we can notice that both Adyn and Jasper are holding the same posture – may it be intentional or not. I see this as a parallel to both the place and the situation of black people in the USA. Always behind the white (man). We have all heard about slavery, the civil rights movement and more recently, the Black Lives Matter movement. However, no matter how much – or how little – we know about them, they are quite difficult to relate to and understand if not part of a minority.
Being black in America was harder than it is today. I see this photograph as a metaphor for that socio-economic situation. I don’t believe that this was Eggleston’s intention. Regardless, this is what I see.
The driver, Jasper, can stand by his employer, in sharp looking clothes. He is in the same posture as Adyn, but a few steps behind. He can do the same thing as his employer but on a different level. A lower level. The black community in America has always been able to do the same as the white community has but on a different level. This is why black universities, banks and other businesses/entities exist in America. Because black people couldn’t do these things around white people, the same could be applied to other minorities living in the US.
I know that what I wrote above can seem far-fetched; however, this is how I see and read this amazing portrait. You might not read it in the same way, and it’s ok. I believe that the true beauty of art isn’t the piece itself, but what we take and make of it as a viewer.
I am hoping to write more posts like these in the future because I enjoy the process of it, but also because it goes beyond finding a piece of art beautiful or not. It goes beyond what we see at first sight, and this is why I love art so much.