william eggleston comes to london's national portrait gallery
An unmissable exhibition of work — including never before seen images — by the man who changed photography forever.
Untitled, 1974 (Karen Chatham, left, with the artist's cousin Lesa Aldridge, in Memphis, Tennessee) by William Eggleston, 1974 Wilson Centre for Photography ©Eggleston Artistic Trust
William Eggleston was born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1939 and still lives there today. He is widely considered to be the greatest living photographer, a genuine originator of the art form. From an aristocratic family, the Southern gentleman has long been known to enjoy a strong drink and a cigarette, though he has never had any time for esoteric examination of his art. Eggleston has dispensed cutting rebukes to interviewers foolish enough to think they could elicit some sort of cerebral insight into his motives for taking a photo. Explication would only be reductive.
Eggleston got his first camera, a Canon Rangefinder, in 1957 and has been taking photographs ever since. He is credited with entirely revolutionizing the use of color in art photography, switching from the accepted black and white and using the dye-transfer method to create hyper-charged color. But this universal acclaim wasn't always the case. His 1976 retrospective at the MoMA in New York was slammed by critics who were appalled by what they considered his mundane subject matter, his seemingly flippant style of shooting, and use of amped up color, considered only suitable for advertising imagery. It was no matter to Eggleston though, he felt sorry for the critics' inability to look beyond what they already knew. Besides, he expected them to figure it out eventually, and they did.
Eggleston says he doesn't go looking for subject matter, it just comes to him. He captures the world just as he sees it. He takes one shot, and if he doesn't get it, he doesn't get it — it wasn't meant to be. Eggleston's influence on still and moving images cannot be understated, with everyone from Juergen Teller and Sofia Coppola to David Lynch and Martin Parr citing the significance of his vision on their own approaches.
The retrospective at London's National Portrait Gallery brings together Eggleston's images of people from the entirety his career until now. He has described his approach to his subjects as democratic. A deserted child's bicycle, a gas station sign, a freezer full of beef pies and ice cream, a woman — maybe known to the photographer, maybe not — sitting on a yellow curb and staring at the camera with an almost baleful look. All caught Eggleston's eye and compelled him to click the shutter, all are equal to the great photographer. What was he seeing in that moment? Did the person know he was watching? What happened before and after, what's just beyond the frame and why he compose it in that way? Eggleston won't tell us, and the wonder stirred up while looking at his unforgettable photographs is part of the pleasure. From some of his most well-known, through to previously unseen early black and white images, this exhibition offers compelling insight into Eggleston's singular point of view.
William Eggleston: Portraits runs at the National Portrait Gallery in London through October 23.
Text Clementine de Pressigny