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William Eggleston

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Eggleston, William
American, 1939-

William Eggleston (born July 27, 1939) is an American photographer. He is widely credited with securing recognition for color photography as a legitimate artistic medium to display in art galleries.

Early years

William Eggleston was born in Memphis, Tennessee and raised in Sumner, Mississippi. His father was an engineer who had a failed career as a cotton farmer, and his mother was the daughter of a prominent local judge. As a boy, Eggleston was introverted and enjoyed playing the piano, drawing, and working with electronics. From an early age, he was drawn to visual media; he reportedly enjoyed buying postcards and cutting out pictures from magazines. Eggleston was also interested in audio technology as a child.

At the age of fifteen, Eggleston was sent to the Webb School, a boarding school on Bell Buckle, Tennessee. Eggleston later had few fond memories of the school, saying to a reporter, "It had a kind of Spartan routine to 'build character.' I never knew what that was supposed to mean. It was so callous and dumb. It was the kind of place where it was considered effeminate to like music and painting." Eggleston was unusual among his peers in that he eschewed typical Southern male pursuits such as hunting and sports, in favor of artistic pursuits and observation of the world around him.

Eggleston attended Vanderbilt University for a year, Delta State College for a semester, and the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) for approximately five years, never earning a college degree. However, it was during college that his interest in photography took root; during his first year in college, a friend gave Eggleston a Leica camera. Eggleston took art classes at Ole Miss and was introduced to Abstract Expressionism by a visiting painter from New York named Tom Young.

Artistic development

Eggleston's early photographic efforts were inspired by the work of American photographer Robert Frank and by French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson's book, The Decisive Moment. At first photographing in black-and-white, Eggleston began experimenting with color photography in 1965 and 1966, and color transparency film became his dominant medium in the late sixties. Eggleston's development as a photographer seems to have taken place in relative isolation from other artists. In an interview, John Szarkowski of New York's Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) describes his first encounter with the young William Eggleston in 1969 as being "absolutely out of the blue." After reviewing Eggleston's work (which he recalled as a suitcase full of "drugstore" color prints) Szarkowski prevailed upon the Photography Committee of MOMA to buy one of Eggleston's prints.

In 1970, Eggleston's friend William Christenberry introduced him to Walter Hopps, director of Washington, D.C.'s Corcoran Gallery. Hopps later said he was "stunned" by Eggleston's work: "I had never seen anything like it."

Eggleston taught at Harvard in 1973 and 1974, and it was during this period when he discovered dye-transfer printing when he was examining the price list of a photographic lab in Chicago. As Eggleston later recalled: "It advertised 'from the cheapest to the ultimate print.' The ultimate print was a dye-transfer. I went straight up there to look and everything I saw was commercial work like pictures of cigarette packs or perfume bottles but the colour 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." The dye-transfer process resulted in some of Eggleston's most striking and famous work, such as his 1973 photograph entitled The Red Ceiling, of which Eggleston said, "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.... A little red is usually enough, but to work with an entire red surface was a challenge."

At Harvard Eggleston prepared his first portfolio, entitled 14 Pictures (1974). This portfolio was comprised of dye-transfer prints. Eggleston's work was featured in an exhibition at MOMA in 1976, which was accompanied by the volume William Eggleston's Guide. The MOMA show is regarded as a watershed moment in the history of photography, by marking "the acceptance of colour photography by the highest validating institution" (in the words of Mark Holborn).

Around the time of his 1976 MOMA exhibition, Eggleston was introduced to Viva, the Andy Warhol "superstar," with whom he began a long relationship. During this period Eggleston became familiar with Andy Warhol's circle, a connection that may have helped foster Eggleston's idea of the "democratic camera," Mark Holborn suggests. Also in the seventies, Eggleston experimented with video, producing several hours of roughly edited footage Eggleston calls Stranded in Canton. Writer Richard Woodward, who has viewed the footage, likens it to a "demented home movie," mixing tender shots of his children at home with shots of drunken parties, public urination and a man biting off a chicken's head before a cheering crowd in New Orleans. Woodward suggests that the film is reflective of Eggleston's "fearless naturalism—a belief that by looking patiently at what others ignore or look away from, interesting things can be seen."

William Eggleston's Guide was followed by other books and portfolios, including Los Alamos (actually completed in 1974, before the publication of the Guide) the massive Election Eve (1976; a portfolio of photographs taken around Plains, Georgia before that year's presidential election); The Morals of Vision (1978); Flowers (1978); Wedgwood Blue (1979); Seven (1979); Troubled Waters (1980); The Louisiana Project (1980); William Eggleston's Graceland (1984) The Democratic Forest (1989); Faulkner's Mississippi (1990), and Ancient and Modern (1992). Eggleston also worked with filmmakers, photographing the set of John Huston's film Annie (1982) and documenting the making of David Byrne's film True Stories (1986). He is the subject of Michael Almereyda's recent documentary portrait William Eggleston in the Real World (2005).

Eggleston's aesthetic

Eggleston's mature work is characterized by its ordinary subject-matter. As Eudora Welty noted in her introduction to The Democratic Forest, an Eggleston photograph might include "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 kerb."

Eggleston has a unique ability to find beauty, and striking displays of color, in ordinary scenes. A dog trotting toward the camera; a Moose lodge; a woman standing by a rural road; a row of country mailboxes; a convenience store; the lobby of a Krystal fast-food restaurant -- all of these ordinary scenes take on new significance in the rich colors of Eggleston's photographs. Eudora Welty suggests that Eggleston sees the complexity and beauty of the mundane world: "The extraordinary, compelling, honest, beautiful and unsparing photographs all have to do with the quality of our lives in the ongoing world: they succeed in showing us the grain of the present, like the cross-section of a tree.... They focus on the mundane world. But no subject is fuller of implications than the mundane world!" Mark Holborn, in his introduction to Ancient and Modern writes about the dark undercurrent of these mundane scenes as viewed through Eggleston's lens: "[Eggleston's] subjects are, on the surface, the ordinary inhabitants and environs of suburban Memphis and Mississippi--friends, family, barbecues, back yards, a tricycle and the clutter of the mundane. The normality of these subjects is deceptive, for behind the images there is a sense of lurking danger."

It may help to compare Eggleston's work to the work of another illustrious Southerner, William Faulkner, who also grew up in, and drew his subject matter from, the Mississippi Delta region that is the subject matter of much of Eggleston's art. Both Eggleston and Faulkner drew upon insights of the European and American avant-gardes to help them explore their Southern environs in new and surprising ways. As the writer Willie Morris wrote, Eggleston's "depiction of the rural Southern countryside speaks eloquently of the fictional world of Faulkner and, not coincidentally, the shared experience of almost every Southerner. Oftentimes lurid, always lyrical, his stark realism resonates with the language and tone of Faulkner's greatest mythic cosmos of Yoknapatawpha County .... The work of Bill Eggleston would have pleased Bill Faulkner ... immensely." Eggleston seemed to acknowledge the affinity between himself and Faulkner with the publication of his book, Faulkner's Mississippi, in 1990.


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