Progression of Art
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 D.C.
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 - 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 - 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 - 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