10/25/2012 11:16 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Looking Straight at the President, the War and Ourselves


With presidential debates dominating the national conversation and the subjects of war and terror front and center, I was looking for someplace that could give me a sense of peace and beauty. The Huntington Library, in San Marino, with its Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, provided exactly the kind of respite that I needed. After a leisurely stroll through its magnificent grounds, I felt sufficiently fortified to dive into the difficult subject of the new museum exhibition, A Strange and Fearful Interest: Death, Mourning and Memory in the American Civil War.

Drawn from the museum's extensive collections, this exhibition concentrates on rare and little known photographs documenting the Civil War, which cost the nation the lives of three quarters of a million people. What I found particularly moving was that, instead of delivering an academic lecture, the exhibition gave me an immediate emotional connection with one of the most painful chapters in American history.


Among the various portraits of President Lincoln on display, there is one I had never seen before. It was taken just two months before his assassination and he looks particularly thoughtful, unguarded, and very tired. In an accompanying exhibition, A Just Cause: Voices of the American Civil War, I was profoundly moved by the modest appearance of a single-page letter from Lincoln to General Grant and written by the president's own hand.


And then was a photograph of an attractive young man, in a hat and trench coat, who happens to be one of the accomplices in the assassination of the president. Nearby, there are two photographs of him and his co-conspirators. In the first, they are standing on the gallows with nooses around their necks, waiting for execution; in the second, their bodies sway in the wind.


Walking through, one moment you are totally overwhelmed by the horror of what you are watching, the next you see a quiet photo of a Group of Union Military and Civilian Men near Chattanooga, Tenn. (ca. 1863-64) posing proudly and calmly in front of the camera. One cannot help but think of how many of them are lying dead here, in another photograph, which captures the gruesome aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg. There is no way to describe this image with mere words; one simply must see it.


In search of much-needed solace, I traveled across town to see two exhibitions of the remarkable photographer William Eggleston. I like to describe him as the Prince of Melancholy who "has produced a veritable encyclopedia of everyday life in his native Memphis, New Orleans and the Mississippi River Delta." Last year, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art presented a retrospective of his half-century career. Today, two Los Angeles galleries -- Rose Gallery in Santa Monica and Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills -- pay tribute to this quintessential southern gentleman and to the beauty of the trivial moments captured by his camera.


Until William Eggleston started to produce his signature dye transfer images, color photography was traditionally considered to be exclusively a commercial phenomenon. Most of his photographs, even those saturated with color, look slightly faded, which gives them a particularly nostalgic, wistful mood.


Collectively, these images provide the most profound, and the most casual, portrait of small town America. If you are familiar with the writing of Eudora Welty and William Faulkner then these photographs will undoubtedly make a strong impression on you. Whether a glimpse of a car passing through a flooded alley or a solitary crossing guard at her post, nothing, absolutely nothing happens in these photos. But if you take a deep breath and allow yourself the luxury of slowing down, then Eggleston's photos will start to whisper, and maybe even sing to you their irresistible songs.

A Strange and Fearful Interest: Death, Mourning, and Memory in the American Civil War, at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens runs through Jan. 14, 2013.

A Just Cause: Voices of the American Civil War at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens runs through Jan. 7, 2013.

William Eggleston: New Dyes, at Rose Gallery runs through Nov. 24, 2012.

William Eggleston: Los Alamos, at Gagosian Gallery runs through Nov. 10, 2012.

Banner image: (L) William Eggleston, Untitled, 1970-1973, Dye transfer print. Image courtesy of Rose Gallery

(R) William Eggleston, Untitled, 1970-1973, Dye transfer print. Image courtesy of Rose Gallery

Edward Goldman is an art critic and the host of Art Talk, a program on art and culture for NPR affiliate KCRW 89.9 FM. To listen to the complete show and hear Edward's charming Russian accent, click here.