William Eggleston was 18-year old when he acquired his first camera, a Canon rangefinder, in 1957.
But there is a story within the story, the southern aristocrat wasn’t meant to be the photographer that we know of today. The original plan was crystal clear: he would take over his family lands and that will be it. Thankfully, he encountered Henri-Cartier Bresson’s works (The Decisive Moment) in 1959, and got hugely inspired – thrilled even, that photography was such a medium for expression. Eight years later, he started to experiment with colour negative film. By now, you probably know that William Eggleston is ‘the father of colour photography’.
But did you know that, in all of his avant-gardeness he preceded our Instagram age and was the first man ever known to have used filters on his photographs?
At that time, colours were everywhere. In movies, advertisements and magazines. Everywhere, except in photography. Indeed, only monochrome shots were considered museum-suitable and it demanded a lot of confidence to go beyond the traditional black-and-white comfort zone.
In fact, when Eggleston exhibited his first solo show at the MoMA in 1976, the story goes that this was the first ever photography exhibition in colour. He had just discovered the Dye-Transfer – a technique that prints photographs in rich, saturated colours – that did not resonate very well with the artsy-elite-sphere at the time: New York Times art critic dubbed Eggleston’s show ‘the most hated show of the year’; others called it ‘perfectly boring’. Nevertheless, colour had suddenly transited from commercials to fine art.
What was so annoying to his critics perhaps is his capacity of making the banalities of life that powerful. Not a given skill considering the number of photographers that had caressed the hope of making a living out of coloured-imagery but were left unnoticed.
Because unlike many of his contemporaries, Eggleston’s motivation was not to catch the extraordinary within the ordinary. Rather, he likes grasping the beauty out of a mundane, banal situation. A philosophy that often labeled his art as being ‘democratic’: he treats each of his subjects with equal distance under a somewhat neutral lens – be it a tropical sunset or the light bulb on your kitchen ceiling.
Eggleston looks at what you’re not looking at, in other words, he sees above and beyond.
Disturbingly real yet strikingly oneiric, his photography has influenced a pleiad of indie moviemakers: David Lynch, Sofia Coppola, and the Coen brothers.
Eggleston says ‘A picture is a picture and what do you want me to tell you about it?’ And he makes a point. With him, the familiar shifts into the unsettling, routine is mystery, daily-life flirts with provocation; and, all in all, everywhere Eggleston lays his gaze upon suddenly becomes highly atmospheric. And that’s about all we need.
William Eggleston Portraits at National Portrait Gallery (London) runs until October 23.
Words by Salomé Baudino