The work of the great American photographer William Eggleston focuses in on the mundane. Famous Eggleston images include the contents of his refrigerator, the ceiling of a friend’s house, parking lots, old trucks, old houses. Ordinary stuff.
The beholder of his art sees what Eggleston’s eye saw as he has gone about his grand five-decade project of documenting the American South, but his quirky choices (photography is as much about framing as editing, of course) become amplified by his hand-dyed magic in the darkroom. Eggleston’s work is all about capturing the vividly ordinary moment.
Many admirers of his work feel that Eggleston’s main strength is his use of color, that the colors are the most important thing, but I’m not one of them. Eggleston is much more than that, as his sprawling, deeply weird B&W 1974 video work, Stranded in Canton demonstrates. He’s the ultimate ethnographer of the South.
Shot using one of those (huge, by today’s standards) B&W Sony Porta-Pak units, the kind where the deck was slug over the operator’s shoulder, Stranded in Canton was basically just footage that Eggleston shot of people he knew. Eggleston equipped his camera with an infra-red video tube so he could shoot in dark places without lights, and this is what gives the handheld video its glowing, otherworldly quality.
The dreamlike 77-minute-long Canton achieves an accidental narrative as it drifts from one scene of Southern Gothic weirdness to another. Hard-drinking rednecks staggering around on Quaaludes, a low rent Memphis drag queen by the name of “Lady Russell Bates-Simpson” mugs for the camera, sauntering around a working-class bar; a couple loudly argues; Alex Chilton appears; so does blues singer Furry Lewis; a geek bites off the head of a live chicken. Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley even make cameo appearances. Stranded in Canton ends with a totally wasted Jerry McGill, the bank-robbing country singer, playing Russian roulette with his pistol as someone makes a guitar noise that sounds like Sonic Youth.
It’s a very strange trip, indeed. Obviously it was a huge influence on Harmony Korine (as he has said himself many times).
35 years after its initial screenings, the obscure Stranded in Canton, was revisited and remastered—with a wonderful anecdotal narration in Eggleston’s deep Southern drawl—for the Whitney Museum’s survey of his work in 2008. There’s a great coffee table book about Stranded in Canton, too, with a DVD of the film, extra footage, blown-up frames from the video and an essay by Gus Van Sant.