When William Eggleston started taking photographs in the 1960s, colour was favoured by ad execs, while fine art photography remained firmly in the grasp of black and white film. Having initially recorded Memphis’ lives lived in black and white, he took his first foray into the full spectrum on an evening trip to a local supermarket in 1965. The photograph of a boy collecting trollies in the magic hour light caught the motion, heat and monotony of the moment; and set him on the divergent path that we know so well today.
Eggleston is wary of symbolism or nostalgia, preferring to record his present democratically and without comment. William Eggleston: Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery mirrors this notion by displaying much of the work in clusters – layered in frames atop and below each other, his photography feels more like a record of a moment than precious master works, as much as they are brilliant.
Neither interested in fine art or photojournalism, Eggleston aimed to describe his surroundings through photography, with little or no intervention, passing no comment on the virtues or flaws of his subjects. But objectivity is a complex ask when tied to a camera’s viewfinder, made somehow more complicated by the identification of the locations and people (many of which have been publicised for the first time in this exhibition) he photographs; as well as the subjectivity intrinsic to the framing of an image, and the subject matter Eggleston has so often portrayed. Whether it’s the social life of Memphis, friends, family or the civil rights movement, it’s difficult to view the work without seeing the casting of at least an interested eye on his subjects.
He does often manage to go unseen, capturing tense, passing or jubilant moments of both private and public lives, interiors and landscapes. Eggleston’s photographs of the Memphis club scene in the 1970s typify this, with contrasting portraits of dancers in motion, close-ups of quizzical expressions mid-conversation, and distant scenes of stillness amongst the chaos. His record of family life also conveys the only slight, or lack of, gap between his eye and the eye of the camera – as he photographs fractious, tender or exuberant interactions.
Since the mid-1960s, Eggleston has made prints using dye transfer, a complex process that allows colours to be printed as separations. Each colour maintains its richest form, is durable and never fades – and as much as he protests to have just been photographing what was there, the same could be said for Eggleston’s work.
William Eggleston Portraits is at the National Portrait Gallery, London, 21 July – 23 October, organised with the support of the artist and the Eggleston Artistic Trust.
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