Sean O’Hagan of The Guardian newspaper writes that ‘William Eggleston is perhaps the most innovative American photographer of the past 50 years whose unique style has transformed the way we look at the world.’ Sofia Coppola says that ‘it was the beauty of the banal detail that was inspirational.’
My favourite introduction to William Eggleston comes from Alan Yentob in the BBC’s Imagine documentary entitled, The Colourful Mr Eggleston. Yentob states that ’40 years ago, [William Eggleston] dragged colour kicking and screaming into the world of art photography.’
William Eggleston reluctantly bought his first camera at eighteen after encouragement from a friend. He started out shooting black and white, printing his own images. Not knowing what to photograph, stating that the world around him was ugly, a friend told him to ‘photograph the ugly stuff’. The subject of his early black and white photographs was much the same as what his colour work would later become know for. Eggleston says he didn’t know anything about photography. ‘I started by reading things like literature from Kodak, or some other company like that, and there wasn’t much like that either. I kind of just taught myself.’ A pivotal moment came in the mid sixties when Eggleston shot his first roll of colour film.
A number of years and several thousand colour images later, Eggleston showed his work to John Szarkowski at The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). Szarkowski was excited by what he saw and offered Eggleston his own exhibition. Martin Parr feels that it took Szarkowski’s brilliance as a curator to find and put together Eggleston’s best pictures. ‘Eggleston is a very prolific shooter, or he certainly was then. He would have had thousands of pictures and Bill himself would have little idea what his best pictures were. He would have needed someone to knock the thing into shape and make it tight, make the thing work.’
In 1976 the show opened controversially with a lot of negative comments from critics, with the The New York Times describing it as ‘the most hated show of the year’. Hilton Kramer very bluntly pronounced it ‘Perfect? Perfectly banal, perhaps. Perfectly boring, certainly.’ Eggleston felt sorry for the critics, he said ‘it’s like they had the wrong job, they didn’t understand what they were looking at, and their job was to understand it. Modern art, it’s The Modern Art Museum, and they wrote pretty stupid things.’ Eggleston laughs when he recalls the apologies he later received from the same critics.
‘Photographing democratically’ is how Eggleston describes his approach to his subjects. He treats everything the same, people and objects alike. Occasionally when asked what he photographs, he finds his most satisfactory response is ‘just to say, life today’.
Eggleston employs a personal discipline and only takes ‘one picture of one thing, not two’. He discovered that if he took more than one, he would later get confused and struggle to figure out which frame was the best. He said that he was ‘going to just take one, and that was going to be it’.
Martin Parr describes William Eggleston’s work as ‘alarmingly simple and utterly complex’. Eggleston is a master in the use of colour, creating tension and intrigue in the banal of everyday life. I like Eggleston’s images, but what I like most about him, is his approach to photography. He either gets the shot or he doesn’t, and he photographs whatever he wants. I on the other hand go out with my camera and take many images of the same subject, from the same or at least similar angle and viewpoint. I don’t believe I have the discipline to simply reduce the number of duplicate images I take. Perhaps my abilities and development as a photographer are being stunted by the ease at which I can capture vast numbers of images with little or no development cost. This seem to be further proof that I should begin re-shooting some 35mm film. The limited number of exposures on each roll of film may force me to take more time over the subjects that I photograph.
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Gefter, P. (2007) ‘John Szarkowski, Curator of Photography, Dies at 81’, The New York Times, 9 Jul, available: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/09/arts/09szarkowski.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0 [accessed 20 Jul 2015].
O’Hagan, S. (2004) ‘Out of the ordinary’, The Guardian, 25 Jul, available: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2004/jul/25/photography1 [accessed 20 Jul 2015].
The Rad Pho (2013) ‘The Colourful Mr. Eggleston’, Imagine, available: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3jZ_HkaTXh8 [accessed 20 Jul 2015].
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