“I am at war with the obvious.” -William Eggleston
The godfather of color photography
The first major museum to mount an exhibition of color photographs — the Museum of Modern Art — MoMA was deemed “perfectly boring” by Hilton Kramer writing for The New York Times. Kramer goes on to say “There is no great formal intelligence at work in these pictures either. The truth is these pictures belong to the world of snapshot chic — to post Diane Arbus, antiformalist aesthetic that is now all the rage among many younger photographers … To this snapshot style, Mr. Eggleston has added some effects borrowed from recent development is, of all things, photorealist painting — a case, if not for the blind leading the blind, at least of the banal leading the banal.”
Widely panned by critics of the day, the exhibition was a watershed moment in the history of color photography. With William Eggleston at the forefront, the movement of American photographers to the medium’s new vibrant palette became known as the New American Color Photography.
Eggleston is given the credit for making color photography acceptable in art circles as a fine art form. He was particularly fond of the now no longer available dye transfer process that yielded super-saturated color prints. His compositions of seemingly mundane places and objects were, in fact, groundbreaking in their beauty. They featured saturated color, Eggleston’s own style of seeing that was considered “democratic.”
William Eggleston was influenced by the books of Walker Evans in “American Photographs” and by Henri Cartier-Bresson with his “Decisive Moment.” Eggleston used a small camera which he used quickly. From it, he developed a style that challenges Evan’s own.
During the selection process of the 1976 show at MoMA panned by Kramer and others, Alfred Barr, director of the museum, commented that “the design of most of the pictures seemed to radiate from a central, circular core.” The comment was passed on to Eggleston who remarked almost instantly, that “this was true since the pictures were based compositionally on the Confederate flag.” Once again Eggleston is pushing boundaries with commentary on the still desegregating South where he lived.
William Eggleston along with Michelle Obama, Lady Gaga and others were celebrated in The New York Times “T” magazine as a member of “The Greats.” In an article in the NY Times Style Magazine, Augusten Burroughs writes about viewing Eggleston’s photos.
“Eggleston’s images can trick you if you’re not careful. You have to look at them, then you have to look again and then keep looking until the reason he took the picture kind of clicks in your chest.”
‘He either takes one photograph of his subject or no photographs of it. There is never a moment of internal consideration or indecision — there is only certainty — which explains why he has no favorites: “Each one, to me, is equal, or I didn’t take it to begin with.” Eggleston can find the perfect gem without ever having to even sift: “I never think about it beforehand. When I get there, something happens and in a split second the picture emerges.’
Burroughs then asked what Eggleston would have done if he had not taken up photography. “Quantum physics.” was the reply.
“The Eggleston of this universe is a self-taught photographer who has succeeded in proving all his savage, elitist and uncomprehending original critics — including The New York Times — utterly, deliciously wrong.”
Burroughs had spent the day with Eggleston when he asked the photographer “Are you a genius?” Eggleston who had been playing “Ol’ Man River” on his Bösendorfer piano turned to the writer and replied in an almost pitying drawl, “Well, yes.”
Discover other influential photographers in On Photography