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William Eggleston - Biography and Legacy

American Photographer

Movements and Styles: Modern Photography, Straight Photography, Street Photography, Documentary Photography

Born: July 27, 1939 - Memphis, Tennessee

William Eggleston Timeline

"I am at war with the obvious."

William Eggleston Signature
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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.

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.

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.

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.

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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Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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