William Eggleston

Shortly after completing assignment two, I reviewed two documentaries on William Eggleston which was meant to serve as my starting point for my research on this photographer. This following review is a continuation of that.

William Eggleston did not have a lot of books on photography when he started on his photographic journey. His main source of photographs was found in magazines, until he came across copies of Walker Evans’ American Photographs and Cartier-Bresson’s The Decisive Moment in 1960. He did not find Walker Evans’ predictable square full frontal format way of photographing very appealing and was incredibly intrigued on discovering Cartier-Bresson’s work which was full of angles similar to that of the famous painters. Eggleston’s early black and white photos emulate Cartier-Bresson’s work and are full of diagonals and angles. Eggleston experimented with various methods of breaking the square, frontal view by photographing ceilings in such a way that he ‘rearranged the space of the rectangle of the photograph with diagonals.’[1]

In 1965 and 1966 Eggleston began shooting colour negative film and later moved on to colour transparency film. His first exhibition in MOMA was curated by John Szarkowski and his accompanying book, William Eggleston’s Guide came out in 1976. In 1974 he discovered the dye-transfer process which was to become the hallmark of his photographs. At that time this process was only used in commercial work and Eggleston was eager to see how his every day life photographs would look in this treatment. I think it would be safe to say that he was blown away by the process.

The first photographs to which he applied this process was a photograph of Greenwood Moose Lodge and the Red Ceiling. In Eggleston’s own words [2]:

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 the dye it is like red blood that’s 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 red 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.

Critics were pretty brutal of Eggleston’s work calling it banal, snapshot-like and boring. Eggleston’s photographic subjects were and still are the people and streets of Memphis and Tennessee, the ordinary everyday objects one comes across like garbage on the street, children’s toys left on the pavement – in short – everyday life.

John Szarkowski, in his introductory essay of the MOMA exhibition catalogue, ‘observed that the composition of most of the pictures seemed to radiate from a central, circular core. Eggleston replied: ‘That was true, since the pictures were based compositionally on the Confederate flag.’ [3]. However, unlike the public’s snapshot photographs with small centrally placed subjects, Eggleston used the entire picture plane, thus drawing the reader deeper into the photograph, often adding partial details of people or objects along the outer edges of the frame, giving another layer of meaning to the photograph, thereby making the very familiar rather unfamiliar.

Eggleston adopted what he called a shotgun approach to his shooting, where he would sometimes abandon the viewfinder and simply hold up the camera above his head and shoot from that perspective. This method, claims Eggleston, allows one to be freer and allows one to look around with more intensity. It also changes the perspective to that of a child or an insect and many of Eggleston’s photographs are taken from these positions. I think his best known photograph with one of these perspectives would be the Tricycle.

He considers his camera to be ‘democratic’ meaning that every object has photographic value. He makes no distinction between things of beauty or those which are ugly. Everything is photographic fair game to him.

I have found that Eggleston’s work grows on one. When I first viewed his work I think I had the same reaction that most of his critics had, but after looking carefully at his work and getting a bit of an understanding of the man, I find myself liking his work in general. His use of colours at times come across as rather bizarre or dark sometimes. His Red Ceiling photograph, for example, is as the man himself states, reminiscent of blood. (One has to ask the question – who would want to paint an entire room deep red anyway?) The self-portrait of Eggleston standing naked next to a bed in a black graffiti decorated room bathed in a reddish light has ominous undertones to it. One gets the feeling that a horror story is about to unfold. Eggleston chooses his colours deliberately, using brash colours that scream at one in some images and then switching to softer, mute colours in others.

I became intrigued upon reading about Eggleston’s Democratic Forest series where the series takes the form of an imaginative journey, starting off from his home, going through various American towns and cities and taking him all the way to the Berlin wall and back home again. Along the way he photographed every kind of ‘scape: landscape, cityscape, streets, buildings, interiors, symbols of nature and symbols of globalisation and I realised that I had unknowingly also been doing something similar while looking for images for assignment 3. What I had been struggling with, however was to come up with a cohesive theme and this has given me a few ideas which will hopefully pan out by the time I need to submit my assignment.

Michael Glover of The Independent says of Eggleston [4]:

He is besotted by the imaginative possibilities of the ordinary. He wants us to rinse our eyes until we see, without prejudice, the exquisite poignancy of the seeming banalities of the everyday…

Most of all, you must resist seeing through the photograph to the bald image of a recognisable object too quickly, too readily. Instead, begin by looking at the form and the tight framing of the piece, the angle of view, the playing off of colour against shadow – that sort of thing. Otherwise, you will exhaust the imaginative possibilities of Eggleston’s work before you even begin.

Reference List

[1] Holborn, Mark (1992). WILLIAM EGGLESTON: “Introduction to Ancient and Modern” (1992). [online]. AMERICAN SUBURB X. Available from: http://www.americansuburbx.com/2011/05/theory-william-eggleston-introduction.html [Accessed 13 October, 2014]

[2] Holborn, Mark (1992). WILLIAM EGGLESTON: “Introduction to Ancient and Modern” (1992). [online]. AMERICAN SUBURB X. Available from: http://www.americansuburbx.com/2011/05/theory-william-eggleston-introduction.html [Accessed 13 October, 2014]

[3] Weski, Thomas. WILLIAM EGGLESTON: “The Tender-Cruel Camera” [ online]. AMERICAN SUBURB X. Available from: http://www.americansuburbx.com/2009/01/theory-william-eggleston-tender-cruel.html [Accessed 13 October, 2014]

[4] Glover, Michael (2013). Genius in colour: Why William Eggleston is the world’s greatest photographer [online]. The Independent. Available from: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/features/genius-in-colour-why-william-eggleston-is-the-worlds-greatest-photographer-8577202.html [Accessed 16 August, 2014]


Weski, Thomas. WILLIAM EGGLESTON: “Draft of a Presentation” (2003) [ online]. AMERICAN SUBURB X. Available from: http://www.americansuburbx.com/2009/06/theory-william-eggleston-draft-of.html [Accessed 13 October, 2014]


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