The colors of the mundane: William Eggleston and the Alien Ordinary

Posted: February 18, 2011 in Uncategorized

SoLost: William Eggleston Plays the Piano (to a group of his photos)

Born in Memphis, Tennessee and raised in Sumner, Mississippi, William Eggleston was sent away to boarding school at the age of 15.  Not pleased with the authoritarian structures of the school and the Orwellian rewording of the institution from repressive and sadistic to one of a “Character-Building” experience for the young, Eggleston notes early on the pressures to move away from his artistic pursues was early on enforced, though unsuccessful..

“Building Charater…. I never knew what that was supposed to mean. It was so callous and dumb. It was the kind of place where it was considered effeminate to like music and painting.”

Robert Frank, Once upon a Tme there were Jobs 1955

Later attending college he never obtained a degree but found the delights of the Leica camera and the vibrant new work of the loose group of struggling painters of abstract expressionism. Following his newly stimulated interest in art Eggleston discovered the alternative art-beat sensibilities of Robert Frank and the writings of Henri Carier-Bresson (The Decisive Moment) on his relationship to the camera and print. Both of these workers in the photographic medium stimulated Eggleston’s interest in the photographic and began his search for a vocabulary of the photograph and its formulation

Beginning his Photographic production first in black-and-white, Eggleston began his first applications in color in 1966 where his art production was to be fostered and where his major influence was to be felt.

William Eggleston Tricycle

After recognition from the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Cocoran Gallery in Washington D.C. , who’s Photographic departments had never seen the like of Eggleston’s Subject matter of the commonplace coupled with the slightly oversaturated but pedantic colors of Kodak’s commonplace color palette, Eggleston went on to teach at Harvard in 1973 and 1974, where he was introduced to the technique of  dye-transfer  printing through the fluke of pursuing a photo lab advertisement.

“It advertised ‘from the cheapest to the ultimate print.’ The ultimate print was a dye-transfer. I went straight up there to look and everything I saw was commercial work like pictures of cigarette packs or perfume bottles but the color saturation and the quality of the ink was overwhelming. I couldn’t wait to see what a plain Eggleston picture would look like with the same process. Every photograph I subsequently printed with the process seemed fantastic and each one seemed better than the previous one.”

William Eggleston 14 Pictures 1973 (one from the Portfolio)

The colors that Eggleston could obtain with the dye-transfer process resulted in a long line of work which culminated in some of Eggleston’s most recognized  body of work, including the 1973 picture The Red Ceiling and the portfolio of images titled 14 Pictures. Thinking about color and the photo (the Aura of the object as continually reproducible), and taking the border example of the Red Ceiling, Eggleston noted the questionable nature of the surface of the photograhic work as color, object, and reproducible product, “The Red Ceiling is so powerful, that in fact I’ve never seen it reproduced on the page to my satisfaction. When you look at the dye it is like red blood that’s wet on the wall…. A little red is usually enough, but to work with an entire red surface was a challenge.

William Eggleston Red Ceiling 1973

Eggleston’s 1976 Solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York is often seen as a turning point in the photographic tradition as marking a general acceptance of color by the artistic community to the usage of explicit and detailed coloration in the photographic artpiece. Yet the show generated stark controversy for just this reason and the reviews of the exhibition were merciless and scathing.  Due to the focus on the mundane and the linking of the everyday to a form of viewer and artistic contemplation the reviewer could not steer clear of the notion (actually quoted) of the “snap shots,” and wondered why the art tried to be “purposely boring” . Even  the well regarded photographer Ansel Adams looked to the saturated and run of the mill  content of Eggleston’s work and stated without equivocation that it had no place on the wall of a Museum. . (Don’t be discouraged however a 2008 at the at the Whitney Museum gives Eggleston the title of  “the Father of Color Photography” and, because of the works integration and subversion of content and form, calls him “one of the most significant figures in contemporary photography.”)

Ansel Adams Jeffrey Pine 1940

During the 1976 MoMA show Eggleston came to be aware of the work and factory/star philosophy of Andy Warhol “. Becoming ingrained to the Warhol’s Scene, through Viva no less, Eggleston came to begin the process of consideration of the apparatus of the ordinary camera and the common-place lab for printing as part of the Democratic nature of the photograph and the explication of the drastically ordinary.

Andy and Viva 1968 (photo by Lee Kraft)

Eudora Welty says of this mature period in Eggleston’s work. “The extraordinary, compelling, honest, beautiful and unsparing photographs all have to do with the quality of our lives in the ongoing world: they succeed in showing us the grain of the present, like the cross-section of a tree…. They focus on the mundane world. But no subject is fuller of implications than the mundane world!”   This review by Peter Schjeldahl ( Local Color, regarding the 2008 Whitney retrospective) praises the totality of technique, form, color and content of the Egglestonian production: “His eye for epiphanies in the everyday raises suspicions that, without his aid, we miss more than we see of what falls within our gaze. The effect involves techniques that seem hardly fair in straight photography – dye transfer printing, an arduous and expensive process (mooted, of late, by digital technology) which employes screens of magenta, cyan blue, and yellow to manipulate color. But there’s no gainsaying Eggleston’s results. He shoots like a shutterbug and executes like a painter.”   The Final word goes to the artist Edward Ruscha whose work is obviously influenced by the spare facileness and severity of the modern says of Eggleston: “When you see a picture he’s taken, you’re stepping into some kind of jagged world that seems like Eggleston World.”

William Eggleston Two Girls on Couch 1976


See lots of information and work at the Eggleson Trust.  Worth a look if you are a fan, or merely interested.

William Eggleston, Hot Sauce

And Eggleston is going to enter the small world of artists who have a whole Museum dedicated to them and their work exclusively.  Just decided this month (January 2011) the ball is rolling for Memphis to Build William Eggleston Museum.  The Museum is planned for an opening date in the year 2013.

William Eggleston Gulf Sign 1973

“At first I thought it was some kind of vague idea,” Winston Eggleston told the Commercial Appeal of being approached about the museum. “I didn’t realize that it was such a serious thing.” With Eggleston’s legacy ever more firmly cemented in the history of photography and art — particularly after his expansive 2008 retrospective at the Whitney, which toured the country — it is easy to see why other Memphians are giddy about reclaiming a local hero. “You’ve got the world leader, the man who really placed color photography among the acceptable forms of art… not through elaborate, hard-to-understand subject matter, but by capturing the everyday,” Memphis mayor A C Wharton said.

  1. Holly Slavic says:

    Just think that Gulf sign above is not photoshopped

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s