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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
- The Colorful Mr EgglestonOur PickA 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 WorldOur PickThe 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 InterviewA 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 EgglestonSimon Baker, a curator at Tate Modern discusses Eggleston's work on display at the Museum
- Curator's Tour: WIlliam Eggleston PortraitsPhillip Prodger, the Head of Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery in London leads a short tour through the exhibition William Eggleston Portraits, highlighting some of the works on display in the exhibition