‘You can take a good picture of anything. A bad one, too.” – William Eggleston
William Eggleston is one of the most influential photographers of the latter half of the 20th century. An American photographer born in 1939, he is widely credited with increasing recognition for colour photography as a legitimate artistic medium.
As a boy, Eggleston was introverted; he enjoyed playing the piano, drawing, and working with electronics. From an early age, he was also drawn to visual media, and reportedly enjoyed buying postcards and cutting out pictures from magazines.
At the age of 15, Eggleston was sent to the Webb School, a boarding establishment. Eggleston was unusual among his peers in eschewing the traditional Southern male pursuits of hunting and sports, in favour of artistic pursuits and observation of the world. Nevertheless, Eggleston noted that he never felt like an outsider.
Eggleston then attended Vanderbilt University for a year, Delta State College for a semester, and the University of Mississippi for about five years, but did not complete any degree. Nonetheless, his interest in photography took root when a friend at Vanderbilt gave Eggleston a Leica camera. He was introduced to abstract expressionism at Ole Miss by visiting painter Tom Young. Eggleston’s initial style was influenced by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, and Walker Evans.
First photographing in black-and-white, Eggleston began experimenting with colour in 1965 and 1966 after being introduced to the format by William Christenberry. Colour transparency film became his dominant medium in the later 1960s. Eggleston’s development as a photographer seems to have taken place in relative isolation from other artists. In an interview, John Szarkowski describes his first encounter with the young Eggleston in 1969 as being “absolutely out of the blue”. After reviewing Eggleston’s work (which he recalled as a suitcase full of “drugstore” colour prints) Szarkowski prevailed upon the Photography Committee of MoMA to buy one of Eggleston’s photographs.
In 1970, Eggleston’s friend William Christenberry introduced him to Walter Hopps, director of Washington, D.C.’s Corcoran Gallery. Hopps later reported being “stunned” by Eggleston’s work: “I had never seen anything like it.”
Eggleston taught at Harvard in 1973 and 1974, and it was during these years that he discovered dye-transfer printing; he was examining the price list of a photographic lab in Chicago when he read about the process. The artist’s experiments with colour film during the 1960s challenged the conventions of photography, since at the time, dye-transfer photography was considered beneath serious photographers, relegated to commercial prints and tourist snapshots.
At Harvard, Eggleston prepared his first portfolio, entitled 14 Pictures (1974). Eggleston’s work was exhibited at MoMA in 1976. Although this was over three decades after MoMa had mounted a solo exhibition of colour photographs by Eliot Porter, and a decade after MoMA had exhibited colour photographs by Ernst Haas, the tale that the Eggleston exhibition was MoMA’s first exhibition of colour photography is frequently repeated, and the 1976 show is regarded as a watershed moment in the history of photography.
Around the time of his 1976 MoMA exhibition, Eggleston was introduced to Viva, the Andy Warhol “superstar”, with whom he began a long relationship. During this period Eggleston became familiar with Andy Warhol’s circle. Also in the 1970s Eggleston experimented with video, producing several hours of roughly edited footage Eggleston calls Stranded in Canton. Writer Richard Woodward, who has viewed the footage, likens it to a “demented home movie”, mixing 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. Woodward suggests that the film is reflective of Eggleston’s “fearless naturalism—a belief that by looking patiently at what others ignore or look away from, interesting things can be seen.”
Eggleston’s published books and portfolios include Los Alamos (completed in 1974, but published much later), William Eggleston’s Guide (the catalog of the 1976 MoMa exhibit), the massive Election Eve (1977; a portfolio of photographs taken around Plains, Georgia, the rural seat of Jimmy Carter before the 1976 presidential election), The Morals of Vision (1978), Flowers (1978), Wedgwood Blue (1979), Seven (1979), Troubled Waters (1980), The Louisiana Project (1980), William Eggleston’s Graceland (1984; a series of commissioned photographs of Elvis Presley’s Graceland, depicting the singer’s home as an airless, windowless tomb in custom-made bad taste),The Democratic Forest (1989), Faulkner’s Mississippi (1990), and Ancient and Modern (1992).
Some of his early series were not shown until the late 2000s. The Nightclub Portraits (1973), a series of large black-and-white portraits in bars and clubs around Memphis was, for the most part, not shown until 2005. Lost and Found, part of Eggleston’s Los Alamos series, is a body of photographs that have remained unseen for decades because until 2008 no one knew that they belonged to Walter Hopps; the works from this series chronicle road trips the artist took with Hopps, leaving from Memphis and traveling as far as the West Coast. Eggleston’s Election Eve photographs were not editioned until 2011.
Eggleston also worked with filmmakers, photographing the set of John Huston’s film Annie (1982) and documenting the making of David Byrne’s film True Stories (1986).
In 2017, an album of Eggleston’s music was released, Musik. It comprises 13 “experimental electronic soundscapes”, “often dramatic improvisations on compositions by Bach (his hero) and Handel as well as his singular takes on a Gilbert and Sullivan tune and the jazz standard On the Street Where You Live.” Musik was made entirely on a 1980s Korg synthesiser, and recorded to floppy disks. The 2017 compilation Musik was produced by Tom Lunt, and released on Secretly Canadian. In 2018, Áine O’Dwyer performed the music on a pipe organ at the Big Ears music festival in Knoxville.
Eggleston’s mature work is characterised by its ordinary subject-matter. Eudora Welty suggests that Eggleston sees the complexity and beauty of the mundane world: “The extraordinary, compelling, honest, beautiful and unsparing photographs all have to do with the quality of our lives in the ongoing world: they succeed in showing us the grain of the present, like the cross-section of a tree…. They focus on the mundane world.
His portraits and landscapes of the American South reframed the history of the medium and its relationship to colour photography. “I had the attitude that I would work with this present-day material and do the best I could to describe it with photography,” Eggleston explained. “Not intending to make any particular comment about whether it was good or bad or whether I liked it or not. It was just there, and I was interested in it.”
According to Philip Gefter from Art & Auction, “It is worth noting that Stephen Shore and William Eggleston, pioneers of colour photography in the early 1970s, borrowed, consciously or not, from the photorealists. Their photographic interpretation of the American vernacular—gas stations, diners, parking lots—is foretold in photorealist paintings that preceded their pictures.”
You can find out more about Eggleston’s work by clicking HERE.