William Eggleston & The Advent of Color Fine Art Photography

There has been a lot of discussion of late of artists’ and collectors’ rights following the Christie’s auction in March wherein William Eggleston sold reprinted editions of 36 of his iconic photographs and raised $5,903,250 for his artistic trust. The photos were 60” by 44” instead of his usual smaller print size and they were printed using a digital printing technology instead of his traditional dye-transfer printing technique. The complaint from collectors is that these reissues devalue their original investments in his artworks, with one collector, Jonathan Sobel, even taking the photographer to court claiming fraud was committed. The Eggleston Trust argues that artists should be able to make money from their works just as art dealers and collectors do and should be allowed to make “new editions in new formats”. While this is sure to be a precedent setting case, I am not attempting to enter the discussion on the issue. William Eggleston is my favorite photographer, but I feel somewhat pulled to both sides of the debate simultaneously. That said, this is simply a biographical introduction to the life and work of Eggleston.

Memphis is ugly.  William Eggleston knows that.  Yet throughout his life, Mr. Eggleston has continuously made extraordinarily beautiful and remarkable images of very ordinary, mundane, and even ugly places and people in and around Memphis, Tennessee, where he was born in 1939 and still lives today.  Largely considered the father of modern color fine art photography, Mr. Eggleston has traveled the world creating his powerful dye-transfer photographs, but his photos of the American South are his most notable, and even his images from Japan, Paris, Germany and elsewhere seem to be drenched in Americana. He has often said that he is at war with the obvious.  His worm’s eye view color photograph of a child’s tricycle on a suburban sidewalk which graces the cover of William Egglestons Guide perfectly elevated a ubiquitous and therefore ordinary childhood toy to an iconic status, turning it into a monument of sorts.

Eggleston spent most of his childhood on his grandparents’ plantation in Sumner, Mississippi, where he was primarily raised by his grandfather who took him under his wing, as he was the first boy born into the family.  He was brought up in a well-to-do household and attended college, admittedly infrequently, at Vanderbilt and Ole Miss.  Eggleston never earned a college degree, but it was during his college years that he began photographing, acquiring his first camera in 1957, and his first Leica Rangefinder, the camera he is known for using almost exclusively throughout his career, in 1958.

After absorbing a copy of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Decisive Moment, Eggleston says photography finally “clicked” for him, though he was not only interested in photographing images that contained a decisive moment, as Cartier-Bresson was, and, both expounding upon and somewhat disregarding that idea, he began to photograph images that he felt lasted longer than a defining moment or were at least less founded in that concept.  Eggleston’s earliest photographs are black and white images that are certainly inspired by Cartier-Bresson’s, but also contain subjects and compositions that seem to linger and convey a subtly unnerving mood.  He also introduced an unorthodox method of cropping the people in his photographs in unusual ways, often showing only parts of faces and bodies of passersby in his compositions.

It was in 1965 and 1966 that Eggleston began to experiment with color film.  It almost seems unbelievable today that this was considered taboo in the art and photography worlds at one time, but it most definitely was.  Black and white photography was the only photographic medium that could be considered fine art, with any deviation disregarded as amateurish and wholly denounced as mere snapshots.  This all changed largely as a result of the work of William Eggleston, but certainly not overnight.  Eggleston met the renowned photography curator of the Museum of Modern Art, John Szarkowski, by chance in 1969.  Eggleston was carrying with him a suitcase full of “drug store photographs”, as Szarkowski later described them, but he recognized something special about Eggleston’s work and persuaded the photography purchasing board of the museum to acquire one of his prints.

Though William Eggleston is considered by most to be the father of color fine art photography, his recognition did not come immediately.  It wasn’t until seven years after his first meeting with Szarkowski that his photos were shown in a major exhibition in New York, but the indefinable honor of having the first major one person show of color art photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York belongs to Mr. Eggleston.  Curated by John Szarkowski in 1976, this seminal show was initially blasted by art critics, who clearly did not understand the importance of Eggleston’s work, as “banal” and “boring.”  Eggleston claims that he was not fazed by the negative reviews, but instead felt bad for the critics; they were supposed to be modern art critics and they didn’t even understand modern art, he has said.  Most of these reviewers have since apologized to the artist for their failure to understand and appreciate his photographs at the time.  Many people did not value Eggleston’s photos until they noticed that he was having them printed using the dye-transfer process, the most expensive photographic reproduction technique available at the time, which forced art patrons, museum goers, and art critics alike to reexamine their viewing habits.  Slowly, people began noticing the brilliance of Eggleston’s composition and framing, his unique vision of the world and his surroundings, and, most importantly, and largely for the first time in fine art photography, his use of color.

The dye transfer process is a subtractive method of printing that creates extremely vibrant, saturated colors with bright whites and rich blacks.  Dye transfer prints were traditionally used as a proofing method for magazine advertisements, but Eggleston spotted it on the menu for a photo printing facility, and, after noticing that the option was the priciest the shop offered, he decided to test it out as an alternative printing process for his photographs.  He loved the result so much that he subsequently printed all of his large prints this way until very recently, when the quality of digital printing finally exceeded the quality of dye transfer prints and beat the price as well.

While picking through Eggleston’s endless back catalog of prints for the MoMA show in 1976, one curator opined that all of the photographs seemed to radiate in a circular manner from the center of the frame.  When asked whether or not this was a conscious decision, Eggleston without pause said that all of his photographs were based on the confederate flag. Eggleston famously all-but-refuses to talk about his photographs, instead leaving it up to the viewer to experience the photo for what it is, usually without as much help as a location identifying where it was taken or even what year, with the artist claiming that that sort of information is “not about photography”.  He seems much more interested in talking about his photography, and photography in general, as a canon.  Occasionally you may hear him talking about how he thinks the color red is at war with the other colors, or walk with him while he’s photographing and you may hear him say something like “God damn, that’s a good blue!”, but the particulars of specific images are basically off limits unless he decides to start talking about them and you happen to be there to hear.  The list of Eggleston’s disciples is seemingly infinite, but one notable is Alec Soth.  Soth once visited Eggleston at his home in Memphis to meet him and gain some insight into his photography, but left feeling perhaps even more curious as he had been when he arrived.  It is up to each of us individually, as viewers, to appreciate Mr. Eggleston’s works for what they are: timeless color photographs of the familiar, the obvious, the beautiful, the ugly and the rest, or to borrow the answer Eggleston himself gives when people ask what he is photographing, “life today.”