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William Eggleston and Under Capricorn (1949)

In 1946 the great American photographer Edward Weston, when being proffered the opportunity of capturing Point Lobos in Kodachromes, then a new invention, readily declined. He suspected that the intrusion of colours in a photograph would mar the peculiar beauty that only monochrome could achieve. Later, however, Weston confronted his undue reservations: “The prejudice against colour comes from not thinking of colour as form. You can say things with colour that can’t be said in black and white.” The notion of colour as form turns colour into an entity independent of the object to which it assumes an ontological subservience. In this new way of seeing we can say that an orange is regarded not as a fruit coloured with orange but a fruit that entails a contiguous existence of the colour orange. “Those of us who began photographing in monochrome spent years trying to avoid subject matter exciting because of its colour […] we must now seek subject matter because of its colour.” Weston urged, after appreciating how well his coloured prints of Point Lobos turned out.

One however needs more than a jolt of imagination to think of colour as without the object to which it is attached- in art, at least, the difficulty can be more or less surmounted. Visual harmony, in whatever form it assumes, relies chiefly on the congenial effect that colours, arranged according to their complementary nature, confers on the senses. The advent of colour photography reclaims that significance of colours that black-and-white photography is so markedly in dearth of. Art can now virtually mirror reality.

But taking into account the fact that no photograph will be made if without the operation of a photographer, the reality as reproduced by cameras is still, in the strictest sense, not to be equated with the one we live in. Several photographers, like William Eggleston, one of the pioneers of colour photography, played with this notion of a skewed reality that photographs invariably produce and created a sense of hyper-reality that seems stranger than fiction, confusing reality with dream.

In the case of Eggleston he figured that colour would be the chief asset in arriving at the desired effect. With this he adopted the use of dye-transfer printing, which allowed him to almost dictate the spectrum to his own liking. This took place in around mid-1970s, already some decades after cinema first introduced the technique to its audience. Because of this Eggleston’s artificial, deeply unnerving photographs have often been compared with many of such visual examples in films, ranging from Michael Powell’s Black Narcissus to David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. Parallel can also be drawn between Eggleston and Alfred Hitchcock, whose films the photographer cited as a major influence especially in informing his personal knowledge of the aesthetic. Examples in which Eggleston may be directly or indirectly referencing Hitchcock abound, a notable one being a famous study of a woman’s natty updo taken from behind- the elusive image recalls immediately a similar shot in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, in which the camera lurks provocatively behind a smartly-dressed woman, who sits contemplate in front of a monumental portrait.

Both Eggleston and Hitchcock deployed their individual palettes to enhance the psychological dimension of the stories they were telling. Besides Vertigo, Hitchcock’s grossly undervalued Under Capricorn (1949) also uses colours to the effect of conveying feelings or connotations that are not made apparent in words. It is the director’s trick of establishing complicity with the viewers, a shared knowledge or coded message that only those who “read between the lines” will have the privilege of discovering. Of course the narratives have much to determine and affect our interpretations of the visuals, which in turn subverts our normal perception of things.

This “defamiliarising the familiar” was Eggleston’s forte. In his work, a woman’s hair is always too red, an orange too green, and the night too blue. In the latter the blue is closer to violet-indigo, the sort that one associates with the shadows that envelope a dangerous alley, or the sky before a storm. A similar shade, though with slightly different nuance, saturates the night sequences of Capricorn, with the two main characters- Sam Flusky (Joseph Cotten) and Charles Adare (Michael Wilding)- slipping in and out of the murk in their dark attire, whilst up above them on the verandah the tormented Henrietta Flusky (Ingrid Bergman), dressed in white, laments her imprisoned life. Eggleston also fiddles with such juxtaposition in his night photographs, in which a bolt of shrill light illumines the nocturnal scene, accentuating the crampedness of a locale that darkness attempts to conceal.

Capricorn’s surreal photography is the work of Jack Cardiff, who was once a clapper boy of Hitchcock’s The Skin Game and whose credits as a cinematographer include John Huston’s The African Queen, King Vidor’s War and Peace, and the three Technicolor masterpieces by Powell & Pressburger. Like Eggleston, Cardiff was an artist who did not allow much autonomy for his device. His camera never wanders; its trajectory is flowing but determined, and once a target is within view the camera confronts it head-on. There is always the photographer behind the camera and Cardiff made sure the message was clear for everyone. Therefore no complaint should be raised if the camera decides to prey on the hands of Flusky, which finger covertly a ruby necklace that the husband hopes will please his wife. But Henrietta, going with Adare’s suggestion that ruby will only vulgarise her exquisite dress, bluntly declines. The camera returns to the hands of Flusky, uncertain as of what to do with the now useless necklace, then hold it firmly in the grip like a lover holding firmly the love he is rebuffed.

The lack of narratives in Eggleston’s photograph amounts to a sort of curiosity of ferreting out a secret narrative that the banal façade seems to be hiding. When viewed collectively and without any sequential order, those photographs seem to tell a story of a nameless spy, hot on the pursuit of a mysterious man he always misses. The single-minded mission turns slowly into an incurable obsession; the longer the search extends the stronger the desire of capturing the man. This is every great artist’s worst nightmare: not to know when to put a stop to this fruitless search, to such consuming obsession. A story does not end the moment you put a period to the line. Nothing’s over when it’s over. The story simply goes on.


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