Despite his often mundane subject matter, he is simply not your ordinary photographer. His first one-man exhibit at the MoMA in 1976 was both heralded as being genius and was criticized as being the most hated show of the year. Some see his work as being perfect – the angles, composition, color, everything pushing the edges. While others see a jumbled mess of boring things, just thrown together, like he just shot from his hip with no thought behind it whatsoever. Love him or hate him, William Eggleston changed photographic history and changed the way we look at the world.
Born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1939, William Eggleston was raised primarily by his mother and maternal grandfather, his father having died in the Pacific during WWII. His grandfather took photographs as a hobby, so Eggleston often used his Contax and Leica IIIA as a child. His true inspiration for photography, however, came during college when, like so many other photographers, he came across the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson. He says, “A photographer friend of mine bought a book of Magnum work with some Cartier-Bresson pictures that were real art, period. You didn’t think a camera made the picture. Sure didn’t think of somebody taking the picture at a certain speed with a certain speed film. I couldn’t imagine anybody doing anything more than making a perfect Cartier-Bresson. Which I could do, finally.”
Although he started his career working in black and white, he soon changed to color. The biggest problem he found was getting the colors the way that he wanted them. He tried having them developed commercially, which didn’t give him the results he wanted. He then went to Kodak slide film, which still didn’t work. In the early 1970s, he came across a process called dye-transfer. Also used by the artist Robert Rauschenberg, dye-transfer is a long and complicated process involving separating the individual colors from the master negative. It was a technique used mainly for advertising but, when Eggleston saw it, he knew it was perfect for his prints. He often said he could never get his colors as rich or as saturate as he wanted until he started using this process.
Color became the main subject in his photographs. The objects are secondary to how the color looks and fits within the composition. He has been highly influenced by artists Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky, which you can see in his images. There are blocks of color, there are shapes, there are angles and lines. He is not concerned about his photographs having meaning behind them. He says, “A picture is what it is… It wouldn’t make any sense to explain them. Kind of diminishes them.” I thought of the scene in Pollock where Lee walks in on Pollock and starts quizzing him about a painting he is working on. “What’s this? I see the head, the body. This isn’t Cubism, Jackson, because you’re not really breaking down the figure into multiple views…” She goes on and on, asking questions and telling him what it’s not, to which he simply responds, “I’m just painting, Lee.” That’s how Eggleston seems to approach photography. He just shoots, preferring to let his subconscious find an appropriate, or simply pleasing, composition.
Eggleston is able to simply capture moments, without being overly concerned with the why behind it. He takes one photograph and moves on. If he doesn’t get it the first time, he doesn’t go back to try to recapture it. The moment is over and he has moved on. His subjects are things most of us would consider to be boring, but he takes the everyday, often mundane objects in our lives and makes them beautiful. He turns them into works of art. If you look at each of his images and take the subjects themselves out and just see the color, shapes, and lines; seeing how it all fits together. That is art.
His first exhibit was a one-man show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. This was the first photography exhibit to show solely color work. Up until that point, black-and-white was considered the only true photographic art form. The curator of the museum, John Szarkowski took a big chance. He loved the work. He called it perfect. Most didn’t consider it perfect though. The show was strongly criticized. Hilton Kramer, of The New York Times, wrote, “Perfect? Perfectly banal, maybe…perfectly boring, certainly.” Even Ansel Adams wrote to Szarkowski asking him what those photos were doing hanging on the walls of the MoMA. Szarkowski defended Eggleston and, in the end, was right to do so. In retrospect, we can look at this this show as the moment in time when color photography became an art form. This is when everything changed, not only for fine art photography, but for fashion shoots, advertising and film. His influence was so pervasive and has become such a part of our culture that it often goes unnoticed.
Prior to Eggleston, color photography wasn’t considered art, it was the medium of snapshots. When it came to photography, black and white was considered the only true art form. Fine art photography was the realm of names like Weston, Adams and Erwitt. Eggleston showed us that what matters is not color (or lack of it). As with painting, what matters is how the photograph makes you feel, exemplified in his now classic book, William Eggleston’s Guide. What matters is what the photographer gets out of it and how the viewer connects to it. I can look at a photograph by Cartier-Bresson next to a photograph by Steve McCurry and would not be able to say that one is “better” than the other just because one is black and white and the other is color. Just like paintings by Van Gogh and Pollock are completely different. They are different, but both are valid in that they prompt an emotional reaction and/or connection from the viewer.
When you look at Eggleston’s work, you get out of it what you get out of it. There is no correct interpretation of it, no right or wrong. It either affects you or it doesn’t. There is no reason behind it and maybe we need to stop looking for a reason. Maybe that’s what art is – just something that affects us on an emotional level. We don’t always need an explanation for it. Sometimes we can just look at an image and appreciate it for what it is without looking for something deeper.