Book Review: Stranded in Canton: William Eggleston

Above: A still from Stranded in Canton by William Eggleston
Above: A still from Stranded in Canton by William Eggleston

In 1973, William Eggleston bought two Sony black and white Portapak cameras that recorded onto reel-to-reel half-inch video tape. The Portapak was the first video camera priced for the consumer market and although it was ridiculously cumbersome by today’s standards, it was the first that could be used outside a television studio. Introduced to the U.S. in 1966 the great advantage of the Portapak, in addition to the immediate feedback functionality that distinguished it from motion picture film cameras of the time, was the fact that it could be used in extremely low-light conditions. And in the right hands, it produced images of ghostly beauty.

Eggleston pimped his Portapaks by replacing the crude zoom lens that Sony had supplied with the kind of prime lenses used on 16mm-film cameras at the time and then over a two-year period starting in 1973 shot approximately 30-hours of videotape. The final film Stranded in Canton, is a 77-minute edit of that footage.

William Eggleston was born in Memphis, Tennessee and raised in Sumner, Mississippi. His father was an engineer and his mother was the daughter of a prominent local judge. Eggleston was an introverted boy who enjoyed playing the piano, drawing, working with electronics and reportedly buying postcards and cutting out pictures from magazines. Today Eggleston is recognized as one of the pioneers of colour photography whose work has not only informed the work of countless photographers but also cult filmmakers such as David Lynch and Gus Van Sant.

Stranded in Canton looks like a demented home movie, which mixes tender shots of his children at home with shots of drunken parties, public urination and a man biting off a chicken’s head before a cheering crowd in New Orleans. In other words it’s pure Eggleston. Whilst shooting it he was also working on a series of still images featuring the same cast of characters, which became known as the Nightclub Portraits.

The portraits were shot in dimly lit Memphis bars and juke joints on infrared film with an inconspicuous box camera that Eggleston placed on a table. These drunken, stoned denizens of the night seem, for the most part, unaware that they were being photographed and the low angle of Eggleston’s camera combined with their blissful lack of self-consciousness give them an unexpected gravity. Stranded in Canton takes these still images and brings them to life in a chaotic way, suggesting a world that has lost control. Both rely on low-quality equipment for their aesthetic and a nonchalant disregard for conventional photographic and filmmaking practice. “Put that thing away, Bill,” is the film’s constant refrain. Untroubled by the niceties of focus, at one point, the camera seems irresistibly drawn to the zips on the trousers of every man in the room, “This was back in the days when everyone liked Quaaludes,” he reminisces on the voiceover.

Eggleston shot with the Portapak for about two years and then stopped, feeling the project was complete. In order to edit Stranded in Canton, the original video was digitized and Eggleston’s role in the editing was, as he says, to select the sequences he wanted in the movie and also to provide an intermittent explanatory voice-over. When asked about his relationship with the film and the people featured in it he replied, “I don’t know that it makes any difference whether people are alive or not. I like the flow of it. I like it being alive and the energy flowing.”

© Grant Scott 2012

Stranded in Canton: William Eggleston
Twin Palms Publishing. £29.00
ISBN-13: 978-1931885713

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