The man who reinvented color photography is famous for pictures that some call banal, and others call extraordinary. He says his subjects are the very stuff of life.
William Eggleston, now 60 years old, seems securely attached to the title “Father of Color Photography.” Maybe the word “color” should be modified by “art” or “artistic,” because of course he didn’t invent the process. There have been those, however, who would deny that Eggleston’s photography has much of anything to do with art.
I met Eggleston in Memphis in the early ’60s, shortly after he had come there from his native Mississippi. He was already reputed to be a “serious” photographer. His progress over the decades, however slow and frustrating it’s seemed at times to him, has been astonishing. The prince of a matriarchal Southern empire (his mother, two sisters, one wife and many female admirers), he has moved with assurance all along, paying scant heed to naysayers.
One afternoon in 1967, Eggleston, a beautifully groomed and attired young man with dark hair and eyes, dropped in on John Szarkowski, then curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, with a suitcase of color slides. It was as if Eggleston was turning himself in to the authorities. A result of this meeting, nine years later, was Eggleston’s one-man show of color photographs at the MoMA, only the second in its history. In his introduction to “William Eggleston’s Guide,” a hardcover book published by the museum to accompany the show, Szarkowski referred to Eggleston’s pictures as “perfect,” to which the highly offended New York Times art critic Hilton Kramer responded, “Perfect? Perfectly banal, perhaps. Perfectly boring, certainly.”
The MoMA show included such images as a dog drinking from a mud puddle, shoes under a bed, a child’s tricycle, a tile shower and a kitchen oven. Maybe Kramer figured if he wanted to see a pile of shoes, he could look under his own bed. Others have objected to the subject matter of Eggleston’s photographs — one compared Eggleston’s work unfavorably with Ansel Adams’ big shots of such things as moonlight on mesas. Adams’ subjects are magnificent but have little to do with most people’s daily lives. Eggleston’s work is dedicated to showing the beauty, humor and horror that surround us at all times and in all places.
An important key to Eggleston’s underlying meaning is his admiration for Paul Klee and Vassily Kandinsky. As did these two good-humored masters, Eggleston produces works that are at once, in his phrase, “like jokes and like lessons.” It would be a mistake to overemphasize the influence of Klee and Kandinsky on Eggleston — even calling it an influence goes too far. It’s more of an affinity, comparable to the one he shares with musicians as disparate as Satie and Ketelby. (Eggleston is also a musical composer and performer, but that’s a topic for another day.)
Growing up in comfortable circumstances on a cotton plantation in Sumner, Miss., Eggleston took his first pictures when he was around 10, using a focus-free snapshot camera, the Brownie Hawkeye. “Everything I photographed blurred, looked horrible,” he remembers.
Eggleston’s father died in the Pacific during the Second World War, and much of Eggleston’s nurturing consequently fell to his maternal grandfather, Judge Joseph Albert May, who died when Eggleston was 11. “He took pictures for a hobby, so I had his Contax and Leica IIIA at home,” Eggleston says.
Eggleston attended a military-style boarding academy, Webb School in Bell Buckle, Tenn. His memories of the place are not pleasant: “One of the older students used to tell me, ‘Eggleston, I don’t know whether to call you “shit-tit” or “tit-shit.”‘” But he had a friend there named Tom Buchanan, who, later, when they were both attending Vanderbilt University, “marched me to the store and made me buy a camera and developer.”
In the words of the brief biographical sketch in the “Guide,” Eggleston “matriculated at, and on occasion attended, Vanderbilt University, Delta State College, and the University of Mississippi.” At Ole Miss, around 1962, he saw for the first time the work of Cartier-Bresson, his initial inspiration: “A photographer friend of mine bought a book of Magnum work with some Cartier-Bresson pictures that were real art, period. You didn’t think a camera made the picture. Sure didn’t think of somebody taking the picture at a certain speed with a certain speed film. I couldn’t imagine anybody doing anything more than making a perfect Cartier-Bresson. Which I could do, finally.”
While he was still in the grip of the Cartier-Bresson obsession, Eggleston moved to Memphis, but it proved a dead end from which escape was vital. “There came a point — must’ve had to do with pulling up roots and coming to Memphis — I had to face the fact that what I had to do was go out into foreign landscapes,” Eggleston said. “What was new back then was shopping centers, and I took pictures of them.”
I remember being amazed at that first color work. I had never seen anything like it; no one had. The first private, so to speak, color photography that was equal in technical quality to advertising photographs, it was truly subversive, lavishing the kind of attention on everyday reality that had been reserved for selling products. Eggleston recalls:
What I set out to do was produce some color pictures that were completely satisfying, that had everything, starting with composition. My first tries were ridiculous. I got some snapshots back and I hadn’t exposed them properly; they were awful. I threw them away. Composition was probably correct, but it was lost in the … dismal technical failure.
I’d assumed I could do in color what I could do in black and white, and I got a swift, harsh lesson. All bones bared. But it had to be. Then one night I stayed up figuring out what I was gonna do the next day, which was go to Montesi’s, the big supermarket on Madison Avenue in Memphis. It seemed a good place to try things out. I had this new exposure system in mind, of overexposing the film so all the colors would be there. And by God, it all worked. Just overnight. The first frame, I remember, was a guy pushing grocery carts. Some kind of pimply, freckle-faced guy in the late sunlight. Pretty fine picture, actually.
It has by now become evident, perhaps even to Hilton Kramer, that an essential point of Eggleston’s work is his determinedly anti-heroic subject matter. He has said that he believes it’s possible to photograph anything, anywhere. (“A long time ago I didn’t,” he recalls. “I thought you had to go to Paris.”) Because of the protean nature of photography and its many uses, critics and non-critics have trouble seeing photographs for what they are rather than for what’s in them. Sublime photojournalists such as Robert Capa and Susan Meiselas have created powerful images of compelling subjects, but this is far from what Eggleston does. His work starts from the premise that it’s about more than its subject matter. “It’s the photography that’s important,” he has said.
For nearly 40 years, Eggleston has been married to Mississippi princess Rosa Dosset. As teenagers they roamed the Delta in matching baby-blue Cadillacs. They have two sons, William and Winston, and a daughter, Andra. The sons are world-class loudspeaker designers. If you’re into musical perfection and can stand the heat, they’ll sell you a pair of speakers for a hundred grand. (Their economy speaker, the Andra model, will set you back $15,000.) Little Bill told Stereophile magazine, which named the more expensive speakers its product of the year for 1997, “My dad always told me that when he started, the only way you could get really good speakers was to build them yourself,” adding, “It seemed like there was always a war between having a pile of equipment in the living room and having a neat, normal room.”
When I first knew Eggleston, one occasionally heard the word “dilettante” used to describe him, simply because one man isn’t supposed to know about music, firearms, sound systems, television set construction and art. Eggleston’s strict low-key aesthetic kept him from becoming a household name overnight. Seekers of romance can find it in his work, but only with an investment of effort that such seekers, whether housewives or New York Times critics, are rarely willing to make. Though he did not slacken his progress in amassing a great body of work — thousands of exposures — Eggleston did not publish another book of photographs until “The Democratic Forest” in 1989. He had by that time photographed extensively in the American West, Kenya, Egypt, Georgia, Louisiana, England, Germany and Austria. He had also completed a commission to photograph Graceland, Elvis Presley’s monument to bad taste. Though Eggleston and Presley came from opposite ends of the social spectrum, there was a certain poetic justice in the choice of Eggleston as the one to preserve Presley’s milieu. After becoming a successful entertainer, Presley never wore blue jeans. Eggleston has never owned a pair in his life. The significance of wearing what are essentially work clothes was lost on neither man.
Eggleston has been characterized, justly, as willful. Seldom has there been a greater individualist than Eggleston, a man who prides himself on never having done a push-up. (For a former military school inmate, this is indeed an accomplishment.) His iron determination and discipline are perhaps most clearly revealed in his work method, which consists of taking one shot of an image. That is, contrary to what they tell you in photography class, Eggleston doesn’t bracket exposures, he doesn’t try first one angle and then another; he sees a composition and captures it once and for all time.
True, his photographs, as Eudora Welty acknowledged in her introduction to “The Democratic Forest,” “focus on the mundane world. But,” she hastens to add, “no subject is fuller of implications than the mundane world!”
Eggleston’s next book, “Faulkner’s Mississippi,” published in 1990, contained an extensive text by Willie Morris, another native of the state. It was a minage ` trois made in heaven, or someplace rather dissimilar from Mississippi. Morris’ prose is excellent, filled with understanding and empathy, but Eggleston’s photographs, so unlike much of Faulkner’s work in their impeccable clarity, overpower the project and make it ultimately one more great Eggleston album.
In 1959 the master photographer Walker Evans called color photography vulgar — not meaning it as a compliment — but that was before he fell in love with William Christenberry’s Brownie pictures and the products of his own Polaroid SX-70. In the ’70s, Szarkowski said that Eggleston was inventing color photography, and it seems he was right. Many photographers have followed his lead, but no one has been able to do what he does. His influence in that sense might be compared to Hemingway’s: He changed everything, but nobody can really emulate him. His subject matter is too unpredictable, his compositional sense too unerring.
The most extensive view of Eggleston’s work published to date is “Ancient and Modern,” released to coincide with a 1992 exhibition at the Barbican Art Gallery in London. It includes black-and-white images from the early and middle ’60s as well as color work from around the world. The exhibition traveled to Denmark, Germany and Switzerland. He has since had many exhibitions in the United States and in other countries such as Japan and Austria. In March of this year he went to Goteberg, Sweden, to accept the Erna and Victor Hasselblad Foundation International Award in Photography. At the same time there was an exhibition at the Hasselblad Center in the Goteberg Museum of Art. Scalo publishers issued a book, “William Eggleston,” to commemorate the event. In its foreword, Gunilla Knape, director of the Hasselblad Center, writes, “Eggleston introduced a new aesthetic, a new ‘democratic’ way of seeing through which the ordinary and banal became extraordinary and engrossing.”
The banal, then, is still banal, but now it’s engrossing. I suppose this must be seen as progress, but Eggleston’s belief has been and remains that what the resolutely high-minded call banality is the stuff of life itself. It is where we live — but not only there. Much has been made of Eggleston’s oft-quoted statement “I am at war with the obvious.” Here he is, not atypically, saying a good deal less than he means. Eggleston loves the obvious — he hates, and is indeed at war with, the idea of it, the contempt in which it is held. He sees what’s in the gutter but also looks up to the heavens. As Malcolm Jones, an unusually perceptive critic of Eggleston’s work, has observed, “He addresses the meanest objects with unstuttering love.”