William Eggleston was born in Memphis, USA in 1939. His family was wealthy and he grew up in a former cotton plantation. He was sent to boarding school and went to university to study art but didn’t seem to really know what to do with his life. A friend encouraged him to buy a camera (a Leica) and he started experimenting.
He says he was influenced by Robert Frank and Henri Cartier-Bresson. He also developed a taste for German expressionism. His first photos were in black and white, but did not really get into street photography like his heroes. Eggleston declared at the time: “I couldn’t imagine doing anything more than making a perfect fake Cartier-Bresson”.
When he was young, he complained there was nothing to photograph in his town, everything was too ugly. His wife responded he should photograph the ugly. This became the trademark of his career. He photographed everyday, man-made objects, the ordinary, the decrepit and started shooting in colour.
William Eggleston had his first show at MoMA in 1976. Some people say it was the first colour photography exhibition there, but this is not true : Eliot Porter and Ernst Haas had already exhibited colour photos there previously. Eggleston’s exhibition however had a great impact on the photography world and its influence probably changed the course of photography.
We have to understand that “serious” photography was in black and white at the time. Colour was for snapshots and family photos. Ansell Adams visited the exhibition and dismissed it complaining there was no substance, everything was in the colour. . The New York Times called it “the most hated show of the year.” and I heard that Cartier-Bresson dismissed Eggleston’s work too.
One of the important things to understand about Eggleston’s work in the 1970’s is the quality of his prints. He discovered a process called dye-transfer that was used in the advertising and commercial industry. It was expensive (I read that it cost $150 for a print). but the vibrancy of the colours was far beyond what had been done before for “art“. This created a real shock in a way we cannot grasp today. He says today that he has not seen a good print of his work compared to the originals of the 1960’s.
So William Eggleston takes vibrant colour prints of mundane and ordinary. He does not overthink anything and says the there are things
in them people can discover but doesn’t want to over analyse anything.
What should we take away from his work :
- Composition, sharpness and exposure remove us from what photography really is.
- We should use our eyes, take pictures with our eyes before lifting the camera and taking a shot. The best tool is not the camera.
- We should learn how to use colour and get a sense of how colours work together.
- Our creativity is the path, not the place, not the tools.
- Don’t put too much pressure on meaning, each person will find some meaning (or not) when they see our photos.