William Eggleston is said to have interpreted his surroundings by the objects they contained rather than by the people. His pictures are often thought of as being devoid of people – however a look at the website of his foundation shows that this is far from true. See: http://egglestonartfoundation.org/
His images are brightly coloured and are often about the small details. On the front page there are images of a car (and its advertisement), a deserted shop (possibly a diner), 3 light fittings (on varyingly coloured backgrounds), landscapes (including a beautiful image of either coloured leaves or blossom), road signs, a glass on an aeroplane table, stuff on (probably a kitchen) table , dolls, a bowl of fruit, as well as six pictures focusing on people and another car. This covers most of the possible subjects of photography. The difference is that he thought to take these varied images in colour at a time when the norm was black and white and mainly either street images or formal photography, carefully considered and correctly viewed. I am not suggesting that Eggleston did not carefully consider each of his images – just that his eye for what made an image was different. His images use the items to tell about the place. The image of the glass on the aeroplane table immediately makes me think of holidays, travel, excitement, and also fear – but it is a very simple image utilising the light coming in the window. Eggleston is said to have ‘legitimised’ the use of colour in art photography when, up to that point, it had mainly been used in commercial work. He used a dye-transfer printing process that gave vivid colour and makes things look hyper realistic. His images are often of the ‘ordinary world’, things left on the pavement, broken items, street signs. His composition includes skewed lines, odd perspectives, and unlikely items.
In the introductory essay to William Eggleston’s Guide (Eggleston and Szarkowski, 2014) by John Szarkowski which was initially published in 1976, Szarkowski is dismissive of the use of colour in most photography, for instance comparing it to paintings ‘ it is their unhappy fate to remind ups of something similar but better’ (p.9) and ‘Most color photography, in short, has been either formless or pretty’. But he goes on to say that the best of modern colour photography ‘derives its vigour’ from taking images of ‘commonplace objects’, the things found in life, the people and the ordinary places, ‘visual analogues for the quality of one life. This certainly describes Eggleston’s work. The book instantly takes you back, to mid last century America, neither rich or particularly poor. The life of the ordinary person. He does not make fun of it, it is a simple statement – this it what it is. The bikes and the cars, the barbecue, the rubbish in the streets. This is the way at it was.
Eggleston’s lifestyle was eccentric, he was rich, southern and did not need to work. He plays the piano, draws, paints and almost incidentally takes photographs. There is a fascinating extended interview answered life story by Sean O’Hagan (O’Hagan, 2017) which describes how people were originally offended by his work both because of the colour and the subject matter. The ordinary world. The world most people inhabit.
Eggleston, W. and Szarkowski, J. (2014) William Eggleston’s guide. (2nd ed.,) New York: Museum of Modern Art.
O’Hagan, S. (2017) ‘William Eggleston: ‘The music’s here then it’s gone – like a dream’’ In: The Observer 19/11/2017 At: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/nov/19/william-eggleston-interview-i-play-the-piano-musik-photography (Accessed 06/07/2020).