Photographing the ‘Boring,’ the History and Photography of William Eggleston

All photographs copyright Eggleston Artistic Trust

William Eggleston may be one of the most celebrated and misunderstood photographers in history. Born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1939 and raised in Mississippi, Eggleston was an introverted man born into a wealthy aristocratic family of former plantation owners.

Eggleston was influenced by Robert Frank’s The Americans, Henri Cartier-Bresson’s The Decisive Moment, and Walker Evan’s American Photographs. However, he struggled early on with finding his subject matter. He thought of Memphis as an ugly place and not the type of rich environment that Cartier-Bresson and other photographers frequented. Then one day, he told a friend that there was nothing to photograph because everything surrounding him was ugly, and the friend told him to photograph ’the ugly stuff.’

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From here, Eggleston’s subject matter was born, and he would be spotted wandering around photographing while dressed up in formal clothing. He focused on the ordinary, the banal, and the ugly as his subject matter and elevated them to be utterly fascinating. However, it is not the subject matter that Eggleston is most widely known for, but his revolutionary use of color. At the time, black and white was seen as the standard for fine art photography. Color was seen as cruder and was used for snapshots and commercial and advertising purposes.

While in a photo lab one day, Eggleston stumbled upon dye-transfer printing, an expensive form of making color prints that was typically used for commercial purposes. He said, “I went straight up there to look, and everything I saw was commercial work, like pictures of cigarette packs or perfume bottles, but the color saturation and the quality of the ink was overwhelming. I couldn’t wait to see what a plain Eggleston picture would look like with the same process. Every photograph I subsequently printed with the process seemed fantastic, and each one seemed better than the previous one.”

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Eggleston brought his work to John Szarkowski, and received a show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1976, but the show was widely criticized, with the New York Times calling it, ’The most hated show of the year.’ It was (and is) tough to understand his work, particularly because many of his images seem to show nothing of substantial importance in them, such as the inside of a freezer, an empty living room, or a green shower stall. He leaves it up to us to do the work to figure out these mysterious moments and places.

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Although Eggleston’s subject matter could not be more different, there are noticeable influences from the celebrated photographers of the day, such as Ansel Adams and Edward Weston. Condiments and rust at a diner look almost like an Ansel Adams landscape in grandness. A rusted tricycle in a bleak suburban landscape is shot from below to make it look as large as Half Dome. He is showing all of these everyday moments and objects in a grandness that separates them from their typical functionality. Every detail and inch of the photograph counts, just as it would in a large format landscape. He instills a strange elegance and beauty into these nondescript objects. You can take nothing for granted in an Eggleston photograph. ‘I am at war with the obvious,’ he said.

Eudora Welty sums up Eggleston’s subject matter in The Democratic Forest, stating that his work included “old tyres, Dr Pepper machines, discarded air-conditioners, vending machines, empty and dirty Coca-Cola bottles, torn posters, power poles and power wires, street barricades, one-way signs, detour signs, No Parking signs, parking meters and palm trees crowding the same curb.”

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Culturally, Eggleston shows us the influence of white Southern culture. He is documenting his surroundings and letting us into his world. William Eggleston’s Guide, published alongside the MOMA show, gives us intimate glimpses into this world. These are not tourist photographs, and they do not sensationalize. Instead, they are full of nuance. They show us family, friends, and familiar interiors and locations.

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Despite this, Eggleston’s work is far from documentary in nature. He gives us an invitation to interpret what we see. His familiarity with his subjects only enhances the strange and eerie world he is capturing. A feeling of unease permeates throughout his work, and you can get hints about his temperament, but Eggleston is not cooking us a meal; he is laying out the carefully prepared ingredients.

Of his most famous photographs is Greenwood, Mississippi, of a blood red ceiling with a single lightbulb and wires running across it. In the bottom right corner is a hint of a poster that shows sexual positions. The red color is shocking and ominous. It fosters feelings of lurking danger and excitement, but so much is left up to the viewer. This was the house of Eggleston’s best friend T.C., a drug addicted dentist who would be murdered by an axe to his head at home, and the house set on fire – possibly due to drugs.

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“The Red Ceiling” is so powerful that, in fact, I’ve never seen it reproduced on the page to my satisfaction. When you look at a dye-transfer print it’s like it’s red blood that is wet on the wall. The photograph was like a Bach exercise for me because I knew that red was the most difficult color to work with. A little red is usually enough, but to work with an entire surface was a challenge. It was hard to do. I don’t know of any totally red pictures, except in advertising. The photograph is still powerful. It shocks you every time.” – William Eggleston.

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Eggleston would not talk much about his work, and has always been illusive to the meaning behind it. I believe this to be because he wants us to do the work. While Eggleston was integral in elevating color to the same status as black and white in the fine art photography world, color was still a tool. He used color to wow us and bring us into his world to then give his subject matter a chance. Even the controversy of using color at the time helped us to step back and think more about it. It was a tool to display a world where the ordinary was as important as anything else, if not moreso.

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Many people call New York the mecca of street photography, and I hear so many people begrudge where they live of not being worthy of being photographed, but the grass is always greener. If I could have any environment to photograph in, I would seriously have to consider Eggleston’s world. It’s a quiet and uneasy world, but there is nothing ordinary about it. A giant rusty tricycle invites us into his giant world. The muted suburban home and car, the unkempt grass, are fascinating when you give them a chance.

Purchase William Eggleston’s Guide

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William Eggleston Quotes:

“Whether a photo or music, or a drawing or anything else I might do—it’s ultimately all an abstraction of my peculiar experience.” – William Eggleston

“I had this notion of what I called a democratic way of looking around, that nothing was more or less important.” – William Eggleston

“I am at war with the obvious.”– William Eggleston

“It quickly came to be that I grew interested in photographing whatever was there wherever I happened to be. For any reason.”– William Eggleston

 

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“Whatever it is about pictures, photographs, it’s just about impossible to follow up with words. They don’t have anything to do with each other.” – William Eggleston

“I want to make a picture that could stand on its own, regardless of what it was a picture of. I’ve never been a bit interested in the fact that this was a picture of a blues musician or a street corner or something. ” – William Eggleston

“I only ever take one picture of one thing. Literally. Never two. So then that picture is taken and then the next one is waiting somewhere else.” – William Eggleston

“I don’t have a burning desire to go out and document anything. It just happens when it happens. It’s not a conscious effort, nor is it a struggle. Wouldn’t do it if it was. The idea of the suffering artist has never appealed to me. Being here is suffering enough.” – William Eggleston

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“A picture is what it is and I’ve never noticed that it helps to talk about them, or answer specific questions about them, much less volunteer information in words. It wouldn’t make any sense to explain them. Kind of diminishes them. People always want to know when something was taken, where it was taken, and, God knows, why it was taken. It gets really ridiculous. I mean, they’re right there, whatever they are.” – William Eggleston

“I never know beforehand. Until I see it. It just happens all at once. I take a picture very quickly and instantly forget about it.” – William Eggleston

” I don’t have favorites. I look at pictures democratically. To me they are all equal. ” – William Eggleston

“I’ve always assumed that the abstract qualities of [my] photographs are obvious. For instance, I can turn them upside down and they’re still interesting to me as pictures. If you turn a picture that’s not well organized upside down, it won’t work.” – William Eggleston

“Photography just gets us out of the house.” – William Eggleston

The photographer William Eggleston as photographed by Maude Schuyler Clay. This snapshot appears in a new exhibit at Power House Memphis called "Guilding Light - A tribute to William Eggleston."
The photographer William Eggleston as photographed by Maude Schuyler Clay.

William Eggleston Documentary

More work from Eggleston:

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View William Eggleston’s work here.

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6 thoughts on “Photographing the ‘Boring,’ the History and Photography of William Eggleston”

  1. This is one of the best and most interesting blog posts on photography I’ve read in a very long time. Well done and inspiring. Thank you.

  2. Wow, well done. This is a well thought article. His role in bringing color photography to the forefront of the photographic art world has been magnified for a few moments by your colorful writing.
    Although i am but a lonely real estate/event photographer, I enjoy my craft. He inspires.

  3. Just a great article!
    I’m a german student who is going to hold a presentation about this fasicinating photographer and you help me a lot! Not only with informations also with motivation and ways to interpret and explain the photographies, althought William Eggleston probably would want me to :).
    Thank you!!

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