Summary of William Eggleston
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.
- 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.
Important Art by William Eggleston
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.
Silver Gelatin Print - Eggleston Trust
Untitled (Memphis) is Eggleston's first successful color negative. It was taken just as Eggleston started experimenting with color photography at an American supermarket. As his wife Rosa Eggleston explains, "we were surrounded everywhere by this plethora of shopping centers and ugly stuff. And that is really initially what he started photographing." In this portrait of a box boy, Eggleston captures the boy's ritualistic act of pushing a chain of empty shopping carts into the store. Taken straight on but slightly tilted, the teenage boy's profile and left arm register the warm afternoon sunlight, casting a shadow on the wall of the store. In the background, a well-dressed woman walks towards the store and the boy with the carts. The boy's absentminded expression may be inconsequential. However, the dramatic lighting casts a golden aura over his profiled face, left arm, and upper torso, lifting him out of the everyday.
For Eggleston, there is just as much beauty and interest in the everyday and ordinary as in a photo of something extraordinary. Eggleston calls this his democratic method of photographing and explains that "it is the idea that one could treat the Lincoln Memorial and an anonymous street corner with the same amount of care, and that the resulting two images would be equal, even though one place is a great monument and the other is a place you might like to forget." This amateur color photograph of a teenage boy's portrait moves beyond the banal into the realm of the monumental, because of the tremendous effort put into orchestrating life down to the most menial task.
Color Transparency Print - Wilson Centre for Photography, Washington DC
In this iconic work, a weather-beaten tricycle stands alone - monumental in scale - in the foreground of this suburban scene. At closer inspection, the subtler things become apparent, like the rust on the tricycle's handlebars, a dead patch of grass behind it, the parked car in the garage of one of the houses seen between the wheels of the tricycle, a barely visible front car bumper to the right, and the soft pink and blue hues of the sky. This ordinary scene draws our attention to the importance of the tricycle in suburban America. Bruce Wagner explains, the bikes are "neither sad nor ironic, but rather the things Mr. Eggleston's itinerant eye fell upon and snagged." This work is not about evoking emotions, rather it is about noticing that which is so obvious it is overlooked.
Eggleston makes this picture visually interesting by playing with scale. By shooting from a low angle, the tricycle, a small child's toy, is made gigantic, dwarfing the two ranch houses in the background. As Martin Parr explains, "the composition appears so intuitive, so natural. It is not forced upon us at all. It appears the simplest thing, but of course when you analyze it - it becomes quite sophisticated - and the messages that these pictures can release to us are quite complex and fascinating." This picture of a child's tricycle may prompt a sense of nostalgia in the viewer, yet Eggleston's gaze is neutral. This skillfully crafted picture intentionally makes the viewer pay attention to the tricycle. It inspired the art photography of the 21st century.
Dye Imbibition Print - The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C., The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK
Untitled (Sumner, Mississippi, Cassidy Bayou in Background)
Eggleston's images are successful because he photographs what he knows, the American South. In Untitled (Sumner, Mississippi), a White man with his hands in his pockets and wearing a black suit stands in front of a Black man wearing a white servant's jacket also standing with his hands in his pockets. Both men are looking away from the camera with the same neutral expression on their faces. A car with the driver side door ajar is parked alongside them on the leafy banks of a river. This photo depicts Eggleston's uncle Adyn Schuyler Sr. and Jasper, a longtime family servant who helped raise Eggleston, in the midst of watching a family funeral. The mimicry between the men's stances creates a sense of intimacy between them. As Eggleston puts it, "it's like they've been together for so long they've started standing the same way."
This photo was taken at the height of racial tensions in the South. The United States was legally a desegregated country, but some White southerners rebelled against this, refusing to let go of their Confederate identity. Eggleston plays on this theme in his photo. As the historian Grace Elizabeth Hale explains "the fusion of intimacy and inequality here would be at home in a daguerreotype of a young Confederate soldier and the young slave who accompanied him to war, and yet the clothes and the car drag the image into the 1970s present." This personal family photograph, overlaid with tensions of race, comes across so nonchalant. Yet, this candid moment creates an authentic picture of ingrained social biases.
Dye imbibition print - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Untitled, (Greenwood, Mississippi)
One of Eggleston's most famous pictures, Untitled (Greenwood, Mississippi) also known as The Red Ceiling, depicts a closeup view of the intense, red ceiling and far corner of a friend's guest room. Slightly left of center is a light fixture with a bare bulb and three white cables stapled to the ceiling leading out towards the walls. In the lower left corner, a black door or window frame is cropped just enough to suggest a threshold. While in the lower right corner a poster depicting the positions of the Kamasutra is cropped, yet is still recognizable.
Eggleston is known for capturing sometimes garish, but always stunning color combinations in his pictures. His eye for color, enhanced by his dye-transfer process, ultimately enabled color photography to become a legitimate art form. Of this picture he once said, the deep red color was "so powerful, I've never seen it reproduced on the page to my satisfaction. When you look at a dye-transfer print it's like it's red blood that is wet on the wall." This all-consuming, blood red color combines with the cropped erotic poster to charge the photograph with an unsettling sense of mystery and sexual undertone. There's something illicit going on here, but what? At the time this photo was shown, most photographs were still black and white, so the vibrant red pigment was shockingly avant-garde.
Dye Imbibition Print - The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
Untitled (Citgo gas pump)
In this work, a lone man crosses the street, walking towards a Citgo gas station with his back to the photographer. On the side of the station a parked car sits with its hood up ready to be worked on, but no mechanic is present. Streamers and power lines (typical subject matter for Eggleston) intersect across the blue sky creating a visual web of lines and color. An old house peeks out from behind the gas station, while new cars are parked in what could be a rundown gas station in the foreground. There is always an implied narrative to Eggleston's work, but never an explicit context. It is the implied narrative of the rural south that provides the tension or anecdotal character to the picture, something Eggleston was a master at describing.
The picture brings to mind the work of Walker Evans, yet it moves beyond the depression-era photographer. Evans created black and white photographs for the government's Farm Security Administration (FSA) in the 1930s. Eggleston's subject matter, the juxtaposition of the old with the new, and the ephemeral moments of the everyday, is reminiscent of Evans. But he updates Evans's documentary style through his use of color and expands upon it through his use of depth.
Evans took his photos straight on, creating a flatness to his images. As historian Grace Elizabeth Hale explains, "Eggleston reworks subjects Evans shot from the front by shooting instead at odd angles, adding dimensionality." Through his use of color and added depth, Eggleston has built upon what Evans has accomplished, his sharp description of an object as precious. Eggleston could then move toward the notion of the photograph as picture, similar to Henri Cartier-Bresson's and Jeff Wall's understanding of the kinship between photography and painting. A photograph could be molded to describe cultural experiences. For instances, Robert Frank used the photo's graininess to capture the atmosphere of a scene and draw attention to the medium itself. Whereas Diane Arbus' and Garry Winogrand's casual, street photographs paved the way for Eggleston to craft a picture in the image of a snapshot in the visual culture of the 20th and 21st centuries.
Dye Imbibition Print - Eggleston Trust
Untitled (Winston Eggleston)
The experience with this rather casual picture changes, once the viewer realizes it is a snapshot of Eggleston's son Winston when he was 21 years old. Winston is slouched with his head leaning on the back of the sofa, a booklet of some sort unfolds across his chest, his forehead is scarred, and he looks directly into the camera, as if at his father, defensively. The angle of the shot is askew, capturing the son's mood while his eyes engage the viewer. His face illuminated, yet partially in shadow is the focus of the image. Although behind him the light from a lamp draws the viewer's attention towards the back of the room, where the daylight is coming in through the window. This daytime scene taken inside the house suggests an intimacy between father and son, who does not shy away from being photographed.
Although his portraits are considered his "non-signature work," they mark his beginning as a serious photographer in the 1960s, working in black and white. Eggleston's portraits feature friends and family, musicians, artists, and strangers. Once he switched to color, he would focus more on objects than people. However, he photographed members of his family, since he first picked up a camera, and continued to do so in color. Eggleston's portraits form a collective picture of a way of life, in particular those taken of his extended family: from his mother Ann, his uncle Adyn (married to his mother's sister), his cousins, his wife Rosa and their sons.
Pigment Print - Eggleston Trust
Biography of William Eggleston
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Legacy of William Eggleston
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
Useful Resources on William Eggleston
- William Eggleston PortraitsBy Phillip Prodger
- William Eggleston's GuideOur PickBy John Szarkowski
- William Eggleston: The Democratic ForestBy Eudora Welty
- William Eggleston: Los Alamos RevisitedBy William Eggleston
- William Eggleston: From Black and White to ColorOur PickBy William Eggleston
- For NowBy William Eggleston