Hours of Idleness-A Photographer's Journey in St. Louis

William Eggleston

Posted in photography by Jason Gray on November 28, 2009

At a dinner party, some time ago, William Eggleston found himself seated nearby famed photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson. Incidentally, Cartier-Bresson was the single photographer most influential to Eggleston’s early development; when the student had set out, camera in hand, originally to chase “The Decisive Moment” that the master had outlined as the only worthy subject matter. Now, Eggleston sat next to his first muse, in a context that honored them both as innovators in the realm of photography, and what did one master have to say to the other? “Well, you know, William, color is bullshit.” Continued after the jump—>

This wasn’t the first time that Eggleston had heard derisive commentary on his work. When his first major show, “Color Photographs”, opened at the Museum of Modern Art, in 1976, then photography critics had colorful things to say about the “Father of Color Photography”. Hilton Kramer, of The New York Times, wrote, “Perfect? Perfectly banal, maybe…perfectly boring, certainly.” Even Ansel Adams, who had championed many young photographers and assisted Polaroid in founding the Library Collection, wrote the exhibition’s curator, John Szarkowski, and asked what Eggleston’s photographs where doing hanging on the walls of M.O.M.A. Although, to be fair, it was probably the climate of fine art photography, mixed with the high cost of developing color photography, that caused the most friction. This, and the fact that Szarkowski really had such elevated praise for Eggleston in his statement on the exhibition. Combined, Eggleston was viewed as a rich, southern dandy (it’s true that he never needed to have an auxilary job outside his art due to his familial wealth) who arrogantly used expensive materials and broke fine art photography’s rules about using only black-and-white for “serious” work. Not to mention his idea about “The Democratic Camera”.

Before television came along and delivered a crushing blow to photojournalism, it was the best way that everyday people received information on events, culture, exotic locales, etc., and Henri Cartier-Bresson was its most favorite son. His concept, that any event could be summarized in a still photograph taken at the decisive moment, or the moment when all aspects of the scene coalesced into a brief height of expression and storytelling, was the excepted measure of good documentary photography. And to a large part, it still is today. However, William Eggleston threw a wrench into that wheel when he conjectured that anything and everything that a camera could focus its “eye” on was as worthy a subject as anything else. Therefore, the sprinkler was as important as the person holding it, so was the hose and the grass for that matter. In addition, William often composed his shots so that some of the action or parts of objects were cut off; this technique suggested that the finished image was less that than it was merely a frame in a moving picture of events that occurred beyond what could be seen in the print. His pictures, like time itself, moved off in either direction towards infinity. This approach crippled the notion that the photographer’s primary role is to choose which piece of the world, among the fractured stimuli arriving at our senses, is the most important to record for posterity.

He landed at this ideology through a manner of stumbling. As previously noted, the amateur photog Eggleston was profoundly moved by the uncommon angularity and juxtapositioning found in Henri Cartier-Bresson’s monograph, “The Decisive Moment”. He set out to achieve this with his own work, but found that his southern locale lacked the visceral oomph of Cartier-Bresson’s more exotic environs. Eggleston wrote a friend that he hated his environment and that it was uninteresting to photograph, and his friend wrote back asking what better reason was there for taking a picture. Eggleston must have agreed because this is when he first started to train his eye on his local surroundings without expectation for what he would find. Simultaneously, he put aside developing his own black-and-white photography, and turned towards exploring the commercial development of color negatives. At this point, Eggleston proved that he could be particular about some things, and decided that the color negative didn’t meet his standards in terms of the finished result. So, he turned to Kodachrome slide film, but printing it was a problem. It was at this point that he stumbled upon the expensive process of color dye-transfer. This technique allowed Eggleston to manipulate the saturation of individual colors, and at last William Eggleston had reached the decisive moment when his photographic aesthetic matched his available camera and printing technology.

Today, there is little argument about whether William deserves the acclaim that he did eventually receive from the photographic community. After all, it is undeniable that all photographers working in color now owe credit to the man who pioneered the development of it as a media of contention, not to mention, most contemporary photographers, whether they realize it or not, owe something of their aesthetic, or at least their freedom of it, to this man. In terms of myself, I started photographing and developing my point of view in photography well before I knew anything about William Eggleston other than his name as a footnote. In fact, it was only recently that an incredibly insightful friend asked me if I knew who William Eggleston was as she took a look at my photography for the first time. I replied that his name sounded familiar. Familiar, indeed! As it turns out, I share a few relatively uncanny things in common with Eggleston. From a visual standpoint;

He did this:

and I did this:

He did these:

apparently, the same year I did these:

So what do these comparisons mean? Do I have what it takes to be the next William Eggleston? I believe Eggleston’s answer would probably be something akin to the one he gave another silly questioner at one of his university lectures, “Well, the last thing the world needs now is another photographer.” Then again, what else would you expect from the man who is self-appointedly at war with the obvious? Nevertheless, I could do a whole lot worse than looking for shades of myself in this wonderful, engaging and enigmatic photographer.

A new exhibition of his work, “William Eggleston: Democratic Camera Photographs and Video 1961-2008” (his first ever retrospective), is currently on tour, and it makes its stop at the Art Institute of Chicago from February 27-May 23, 2010. Hopefully, I will see you there! Here is an interview with Eggleston:

You can view the documentary that the trailer in this post references here

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  1. […] Garry Winogrand, Diane Arbus (all of the “New Documents” show) and more contemporarily, William Eggleston and Brian Ulrich. William Eggleston is an important artist to mention because it was he who broke […]

  2. […] Garry Winogrand, Diane Arbus (all of the “New Documents” show) and more contemporarily, William Eggleston and Brian Ulrich. William Eggleston is an important artist to mention because it was he who broke […]

  3. […] William Eggleston […]


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