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Artists William Eggleston
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William Eggleston

American Photographer

Movement: Street Photography

Born: July 27, 1939 - Memphis, Tennessee

William Eggleston Timeline

Quotes

"What I'm photographing, it is a hard question to answer. And the best I've come up with is 'life today'."
William Eggleston
"I don't have a burning desire to go out and document anything. It just happens when it happens. It's not a conscious effort, nor is it a struggle. Wouldn't do it if it was. The idea of the suffering artist has never appealed to me. Being here is suffering enough."
William Eggleston
"I never know beforehand. Until I see it. It just happens all at once. I take a picture very quickly and instantly forget about it."
William Eggleston
"I only ever take one picture of one thing. Literally. Never two. So then that picture is taken and then the next one is waiting somewhere else."
William Eggleston
"I had this notion of what I called a democratic way of looking around, that nothing was more or less important."
William Eggleston
"You can take a good picture of anything. A bad one, too."
William Eggleston

"I am at war with the obvious."

William Eggleston Signature

Synopsis

Since the early 1960s, William Eggleston used color photographs to describe the cultural transformations in Tennessee and the rural South. He registers these changes in scenes of everyday life, such as portraits of family and friends, as well as gasoline stations, cars, and shop interiors. Switching from black and white to color, his response to the vibrancy of postwar consumer culture and America's bright promise of a better life paralleled Pop art's fascination with consumerism. Eggleston's "snapshot aesthetic" speaks to new cultural phenomena as it relates to photography: from the Polaroid's instantaneous images, the way things slip in and out of view in the camera lens, and our constantly shifting attention. Eggleston captures how ephemeral things represent human presence in the world, while playing with the idea of experience and memory and our perceptions of things to make them feel personal and intimate.

Key Ideas

The snapshot aesthetic provided Eggleston with the appropriate format for creating anecdotal pictures about everyday life. Its association with family photographs, amateur photography, as well as Kodak's Brownie camera (which was useable by everyone) lent his work the proper proportions and personal attitude toward the impersonal everyday.
Color has a multivalent meaning for Eggleston: it expressed the new and the old, the banal and the extraordinary, the man-made and the natural. His non-conformist sensibilities left him open to explore the commercial printing process of dye transfer to see what it could contribute to picturing reality in color rather than the selling of lifestyles, concepts, and ideas. His brief encounter with Warhol exposed him to forms of popular photography and advertising, contributing to his experimental attitude toward the medium.
Eggleston's use of the anecdotal character of everyday life to describe a particular place and time by focusing either on a particular detail, such as an object, or facial expression, or by taking in a whole scene pushes the boundaries of the documentary style of photography associated with Robert Frank and Walker Evans' photographs. His insider view allowed him to create a collective picture of life in the South, capturing how it transformed from a rural into a suburban society.

Most Important Art

William Eggleston Famous Art

Untitled (1960-65)

Eggleston began his career shooting in black and white, at a time when black and white photography had begun to be accepted as an art form - largely due to the efforts of greats such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Gary Winogrand, and Diane Arbus. In this early work, Eggleston captures a scene inside a convenience store. Shot straight on, a boy leans against shelves stacked with wares, next to a refrigerated section. With his hands in his pocket and legs askew, he looks boringly out the shop window, completely unaware of the photographer. To the left edge of the frame, a female employee behind a counter of doughnuts and pastries glances at the camera, acknowledging the photographer's presence. Eggleston reveals a vacant shop, as he looks across its empty space.

He calls attention to familiar places, the people, and the objects that inhabit it. Here he has created a picture of an everyday scene. Shooting from an unusual angle, the mundane subject matter and cropped composition combine to produce what is considered a snapshot. Although this photo may seem like a random snapshot taken with very little thought or skill, in reality it was carefully crafted by the artist. For Eggleston, "every little minute thing works with every other one there. All of these images are composed. They're little paintings to me." For this reason, Eggleston's snapshots are considered pictures that are created to achieve beauty and meaningfulness, based on the vernacular, yet artful language of the everyday.

Just as everyday scenes are singular moments, Eggleston takes only one photo of his subject. He allows his images to speak for themselves. Eggleston has said "There is no particular reason to search for meaning... A picture is what it is and I've never noticed that it helps to talk about them, or answer specific questions about them, much less volunteer information in words." He may leave the work open to interpretation, and contradict himself by saying that there is no reason to search for meaning. However, if these pictures are like "little paintings" then they are loaded with the symbolic nuance, where a seemingly everyday scene has value for the individual caught in it - such as the boy's anticipation for something or someone - appearing at once empty of meaning, but also, full of potential.
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William Eggleston Artworks in Focus:

Biography

Childhood

Born in 1939 in Memphis, Tennessee, Eggleston grew up in the city and in Sumner, Mississippi, where he lived with his grandparents who owned cotton plantations. The only boy in his family, his grandfather doted on him tremendously and played a big role in raising him. Even from a young age, Eggleston was a nonconformist. His mother said "he was a brilliant but strange boy" who amused himself by building electronic gadgets, bugging and recording family conversations, and teaching himself how to play the piano. Eggleston has said he could hear music once and then immediately know how to play it. This nonconformist way of viewing things would continue throughout his life, eventually becoming the catalyst for his groundbreaking photographs.

Early Training and Education

Eggleston was extremely intelligent. When he was 18 he received his first camera, a Canon Rangefinder, and taught himself how to use it. Eggleston's first photographs were shot in black and white because at the time, the film was cheap and readily available. He had a friend who worked at a drugstore photo lab and he would hang around the lab watching the family snapshots being produced. This inspired him to take his own snapshots of the world around him, which during the 1940s and 50s was rapidly changing. Like the rest of the country, the American South was transforming. Cars, shopping malls, and suburbs began popping up everywhere and Eggleston, fascinated by this cultural shift, began to capture it with his camera. Decades later, this innate knowledge of Southern culture and society would provide the material for his most successful work.

Coming from an affluent family meant Eggleston would never have to work for a living and could instead devote his time to his passion. He studied art for about six years at various colleges but never actually graduated. While at University, he was introduced to photojournalism and very much inspired by Robert Frank's photo book The Americans, published in 1959 in the United States. In 1959, Eggleston saw Evans's major exhibition American Photographs, and read Henri Cartier-Bresson's seminal book The Decisive Moment. It's Cartier-Bresson's pioneering candid, street photography that Eggleston credits as being a continual inspiration in his work.

Mature Period

In the late 1960s, Eggleston began experimenting with color photography, a medium that was so new and unorthodox, it was considered to be too lowbrow for fine art photography, which was at the time the domain of the black and white image. But Eggleston, as he put it, "wanted to see things in color because the world is in color." And in 1972, by chance, he discovered a commercial way of printing photos, which enhanced his subject matter and finally created the full impact of color he was after. This new printing technique was called dye-transfer. It was very expensive, and as a result only used in advertising and fashion. But it created such a rich, saturated color that Eggleston couldn't fathom using any other type of printing. Today this laborious printing process is considered outdated, but he continues to use it.

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William Eggleston Biography Continues

Eggleston was awarded The Guggenheim and The National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships in the mid-70s, but his success and color photography's value as an art form were largely not recognized at the time. In 1976, with the help of the influential curator John Szarkowski, Eggleston had his first exhibition dedicated to his color photographs of the rural South at the Museum of Modern Art. The show, William Eggleston's Guide was first met with incomprehension and disgust, and was widely panned by art critics. The New York Times called it "the worst show of the year." Another critic said it was "perfectly boring and perfectly banal." The bad reviews brought Eggleston notoriety, but it would take decades for critics to appreciate his work, and color photography as a whole.

Eggleston has lived a very unconventional and colorful life. When he was younger, there was plenty of drugs, booze, guns, and women. These themes made it into his work. In the early 1970s, his friend, Andy Warhol introduced him to Viva, a woman working at Warhol's Factory who became Eggleston's mistress. Warhol also introduced Eggleston to Pop art and the emerging film scene, both of which he would take an interest in. He briefly experimented with Polaroids, automatic photo-booth portraits, and video art, but became particularly inspired by Pop art's appropriation of advertising; commercial images with their saturated colors.

The art world finally came around to Eggleston's work in the eighties and nineties, bringing him some renown, especially within the film industry. Directors, like John Houston and Gus van Sant, invited him to take photographs on their movie sets. Also during this time, Eggleston expands on his sensibility of place, as he traveled on commission to Kenya in the 1980s, and other cities in the world, including Beijing.

Current Practice

Born a gentleman and stubbornly set in his ways, Eggleston still uses a Leica camera with the custom-mounted f0.95 Canon lens, and detests all things digital. He's a prolific artist, who by his own account, has taken over 1.5 million photographs. Now almost in his eighties, he still lives and works in Memphis, creating pictures out of life's ordinary and mundane. He survives his wife Rosa, who died in 2015. His has two daughters, Andra and Electra, and two sons: William Eggleston III, who was involved in editing his work for the multi-volume book "The Democratic Forest," and Winston who runs the Eggleston Artistic Trust. Details about his personal life surface in the information about who he photographed and the comments journalists make in their reviews - he has a group of rotating girlfriends (usually educated southern women in their 40s) who attend to his current needs.


Legacy

Eggleston was the first artist to take dye transfer printing out of advertising and use it to create art. He is also credited with taking the so called "snapshot aesthetic" usually associated with family photos and amateur photographers and turning it into a crafted picture imitating life, inspiring future generations of contemporary photographers, like Jeff Wall and Gregory Crewdson, and film directors, like David Lynch. And while he was not the first artist to use color photography, it was his pioneering work that is credited with making it a legitimate artistic medium, which forever divides the history of photography from before and after color.

Eggleston has always had a different way of seeing the world. His daughter Andrea once caught him staring for hours at a china set. It was not an expensive set and there was nothing exceptional about it, but something about this ordinary, everyday object interested him. It is this different way of seeing things that allows him to take a photo of something seemingly boring and make it interesting, setting him apart from previous photographers and his contemporaries, like Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, and Diane Arbus.

Influences and Connections

Influences on artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Influenced by artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

William Eggleston
Interactive chart with William Eggleston's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
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View Influences Chart

Artists

Henri Cartier-BressonHenri Cartier-Bresson
Walker EvansWalker Evans
Robert FrankRobert Frank
Garry WinograndGarry Winogrand

Friends

William Christenberry

Movements

Documentary PhotographyDocumentary Photography
PhotojournalismPhotojournalism
Pop ArtPop Art
William Eggleston
William Eggleston
Years Worked: 1957 - Present

Artists

Jeff WallJeff Wall
Catherine OpieCatherine Opie
Nan GoldinNan Goldin
Martin Parr
David LynchDavid Lynch

Friends

Juergen TellerJuergen Teller
Dennis Hopper

Movements

Contemporary photography
Color photography

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Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

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Useful Resources on William Eggleston

Videos

Books

Websites

The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.
William Eggleston Portraits

By Phillip Prodger

William Eggleston's Guide Recomended resource

By John Szarkowski

William Eggleston: The Democratic Forest

By Eudora Welty

William Eggleston: Los Alamos Revisited

By William Eggleston

More Interesting Books about William Eggleston
The Colorful Mr Eggleston Recomended resource

A BBC documentary that explores the life and work of Eggleston, interwoven with interviews from the artist, as well as other notorious photographers and art historians

William Eggleston Documentary: In the Real World Recomended resource

The film gives a rare and intimate glimpse into Eggleston's personality and work as he travels across the USA taking photographs

William Eggleston: Democratic Camera Interview

A candid interview with Eggleston by Michael Almereyda, the director of In the Real World at the opening of Eggleston's retrospective at the Whitney

TateShots: William Eggleston

Simon Baker, a curator at Tate Modern discusses Eggleston's work on display at the Museum

More Interesting Videos with William Eggleston
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