Immaculately dressed with his tie worn loosely around his neck, William Eggleston certainly doesn’t fit the image of a typical photographer. His speech is slow and considered and he is seldom seen without an ice cold drink in his hand. Yet despite this aristocratic appearance, he is widely regarded as one of the world’s finest and most influential living artists.
Often referred to as the Godfather of Color Photography, his work in the medium during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s helped to define an entire creative discipline.
It was not always the case that he was so universally lauded. Having struggled early in his career to convince both critics and contemporaries to accept his work, it took many years for his accomplishments to be recognized by the art world. From pariah to paragon, in this installment of “Know Your Photographers” we take a look back at the colorful life of William Eggleston.
For much of the early 20th century, any attempt to pursue photography as an artistic endeavor was met with derision and ridicule. Many believed it could never be truly considered as a legitimate art form, asserting that its facile reproduction of reality was no match for the lofty, more serious disciplines of painting and sculpture.
The titans of photography, those such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa and Brassaï, spent many years in the wilderness before they succeeded in gaining widespread acceptance from the artistic community for their work.
The common thread that tied this initial generation of fine art photographers together was their use of black and white. So omnipotent was monochrome that when color photography gained popularity during the 1950s, there was a strong collective resistance to it from the contemporary photography movement.
Black and white ruled and color was deemed frivolous and distasteful. It was considered the preserve of advertisers and commercial photographers who used is merely as a marketing tool to sell products in magazines and catalogues.
The celebrated American photographer, Walker Evans, succinctly summed up this outlook in 1969 when he said: “There are four simple words for the matter, which must be whispered: color photography is vulgar.” Cartier-Bresson weighed in with an equally scathing opinion, stating simply that “color is bullshit.”
Towards the middle of the ‘60s, however, there was a rebellion against black and white and the unwitting leader of this technicolor revolution was a young man by the name of William Eggleston. A self-taught and unknown photographer from Tennessee, Eggleston saw opportunity in this brave new world and made the switch from monochrome in 1965.
Taking the principles first displayed by Diane Arbus and Saul Leiter, members of the New York school of photography movement, he fully embraced color, using it as a powerful tool to find new ways of conveying meaning, direction and mood in his work.
At first glance, it’s difficult to see what all the fuss is about regarding Eggleston’s photography; his democratic choice of subject matter is easy to dismiss as trivial and dull.
But it is his impeccable framing and the way he uses the interplay between color and shadow to guide the eye around the image that makes his work so unique. Leading lines pull focus and differences in tone and texture combine to formulate inferred meaning.
His photographs, shot almost exclusively in the suburban and rural American South, show an odd, lonely world. There are photos of drug stores, children’s toys, streetscapes, household appliances, Coca-Cola bottles, abandoned houses and hay bales. All subjects are given equal prominence.
His images are not of the shocking, sexy or desirable, they are of the prosaic and banal. They reflect a certain type of peripheral American life, one that is laced with a vapid commercialism, bright colors and a strong sense of disassociation.
The Mundanity of Memphis
Eggleston was born in 1939 in Memphis, Tennessee, into an affluent family who had made their money from cotton plantations. His father had died in WWII, and so Eggleston moved to Mississippi to be raised by his grandparents. His grandfather was a keen amateur photographer, but as a child he showed little interest in the subject.
It was during periods of study at both Nashville and Vanderbilt University that he was introduced to photography through the works of Henri Cartier-Bresson. Immediately he was fascinated by the subject and purchased his first camera, a Canon Rangefinder, in 1957.
A subsequent visit from the abstract expressionist painter Tom Young also played a pivotal role in his stylistic development, teaching him the basic principles of form, structure and composition.
After complaining to a friend that the mundane suburbs of Memphis lacked in artistic inspiration, he was handed a copy of Cartier-Bresson’s The Decisive Moment. Calling it “the first serious book I found,” it signaled the start of his democratic shooting policy whereby he shot anything and everything, believing it to all have equal value. This choice, or lack thereof, of subject matter became his calling card, something that would define his output throughout his career.
The Red Ceiling
Despite this rather conservative and comfortable start in life, there is an underside to Eggleston that belies his privileged upbringing. A fascinating and perplexing character, he was a lover of guns, wild parties, extra-marital affairs and was drawn to people with substance abuse issues.
His somewhat unconventional private life informed the dark, sometimes lonely nature of his work, and in particular, one of his most iconic images, Greenwood, Mississippi, 1973, also known as The Red Ceiling.
Taken whilst lying on a bed at his friend TC Boring’s house, it depicts a blood-red ceiling with three diagonal cables stretching outwards from a single bare lightbulb. There is a menacing quality that hangs over the image, the red is overpowering and the inclusion of a karma sutra poster in the bottom of the frame infers something darkly carnal about the room.
TC appears numerous times throughout Eggleston’s images, often shot naked in the confines of the bleeding red walls. He was a dentist who was addicted to prescription drugs and a short time after The Red Ceiling was taken he was brutally murdered. “He was my best friend in the world,” Eggleston remembers. “He was hit in the head with an axe then his house was set on fire.” TC’s killer was never captured and his horrific fate only helps to provide the original photograph with more menacing and violent connotations.
Eggleston believes the image to be amongst his most challenging works. “The Red Ceiling is so powerful, that in fact I’ve never seen it reproduced on the page to my satisfaction,” he later said. “When you look… it is like red blood that’s wet on the wall. A little red is usually enough, but to work with an entire red surface was a challenge. I don’t know why. It’s as if red is at war with all the other colors.”
It wasn’t always the case that Eggleston was so highly revered. Up until 1976, he was a relative unknown in the photographic community, having never publicly exhibited or had his work published.
This all changed, however, after showing his images to John Szarkowski, the long-standing and hugely influential director of photography at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
Szarkowski was immediately impressed with Eggleston’s photography, but the thousands of images needed to be condensed down to form a manageable and coherent exhibit.
The two worked hard together, sitting in front of a big screen picking out his key shots, finding recurring themes and patterns within the subject matter. Eventually they decided on 75 images to be exhibited, a true testament to the power of an effective artist/editor relationship.
On May 25, 1976, William Eggleston’s Guide opened at MoMA and shocked the entire art photography world. Critics were quick to deride its anti-formalism, taking particular offense to its perceived documentarian approach and focus on trivial subject matter.
Some likened it to snapshot pictures from a family album and could not understand why it had been given such prominence.
Views ranged from “perfectly banal, perfectly boring,” to “erratic and ramshackle.” Many could not comprehend what they were looking at, with a particularly vocal New York Times review declaring it “the worst show of the year.”
Eggleston to this day remains bemused by the denigration of his work. “I thought it was wonderful having a first major show at MoMA, of all places,” he reflected. “It got a tremendous amount of recognition, great amount of it negative. Well, I felt sorry for them because it’s so obvious. It’s like they’d got the wrong job because they didn’t understand what they were looking at…they wrote pretty stupid things.”
Aesthetics Without Boundary
The importance of William Eggleston’s work cannot be underestimated and his efforts in gaining legitimacy for color photography as an art form is perhaps his biggest achievement.
His mastery of color and composition, as well as his democratic shooting policy, has since gone on to influence photographers such as Juergen Teller, Wolfgang Tillmans and Nan Goldin.
The repercussions of his work, however, extend way beyond the confines of photography. He can count fashion designer Marc Jacobs as a fan and his images have graced the album covers of bands such as Primal Scream and Big Star. But it is the world of film where his work is most acutely felt.
Directors as varied as Sofia Coppola, David Lynch, Barry Jenkins and Wes Anderson all owe a debt to Eggleston and the techniques he pioneered.
His careful consideration of hue and framing, combined with his focus on the bland and benign, have informed the visual language of all of their films.
Most importantly, Eggleston taught a whole generation of artists that powerful art can be created independently of both trends and critics. His colorful legacy will live on, but it is his creative spirit that will endure the longest.
Check out our previous installment on famed photographer Horst P. Horst.
- Lead image: William Eggleston