At the beginning of his career, William Eggleston’s photographs were lacking of the value and the success they boast today. During the ’50s the aesthetic standards of documentary photography were dictated by the black and white of artists like French Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank, thus his first pictures were immediately judged negatively and torn apart by the critics. However, Eggleston took inspiration from these cornerstones of photography; fascinated by Bresson’s The Decisive Moment and Walker Evans’ American Photographs, he started shooting black and white with a Leica camera untill 1955-56, during the university years, before being introduced to color photography by William Christenberry.
“It was something new that was happening everywhere. You couldn’t miss it. If you needed to go to the grocery you would go to the predecessors of the big supermarkets of today. […] over some period of time I became aware of the fact that I wanted to document examples like Kroger or Piggly Wiggly in the late ’50s, early ’60s”, he affirms. American landscape and civilization were changing in front of Eggleston’s aware eyes, both fascinated and repulsed by the visible manifestations of everyday culture, and the need to describe them objectively through photography, regardless of his judgment, was immediately clear to him. Thereby parking lots, road signs, old tires and gas stations, torn posters, empty Coca-Cola bottles and meals, passers-by orfriends, families and barbecues, every conceivable everyday object became part of his visual world and developed a peculiar life. An America so obvious as to go unnoticed, whose popular and easily accessible visual language became source of appropriation through a “democratic vision”.
At first glance, Eggleston pictures seem to record the environment, everyday life and its objects through their quite inaccurate, almost accidental framings; “I never know what is going to come up, I don’t plan ahead in my photographs. I don’t know why, I don’t think about whatever turns up, it’s always a surprise. Therefore I don’t try to plan on any subject.”, he says. But “yet upon closer inspection, you notice how photographs transcend the merely descriptive”, writes the German curator Thomas Weski. For decades people have studied a possible precise geometry and composition the pictures actually conceal, while their mood turns from usual into threatening; we gradually lose our certainties till we’re not capable to recognize our own reality paradoxically. The world appears to us familiar and strange at the same time, and this intelligible presence is what makes room for alienation, loneliness, finally revealing the rift on the American dream’s surface. As common as the captured subjects were, it was like seeing them for the first time, or discovering some unexpected traits that suddenly showed, like a revelation, letting us quest about how they could have remained hidden to us so far.
This is also due to the way Eggleston used to manipulate the viewer perception through color transparency film, which was his main medium in the later ’60s. But it was only between 1973 and 1974, while observing the price list of a photographic lab in Chicago, when he discovered the ultimate dye-transfer printing. Mainly spread in the advertising industry, this technique guaranteed the possibility to alter colors saturation and to increase their intensity through a high quality ink. The young photographer couldn’t wait to see what the process would have liked once applied to his photographs. His satisfaction reached its peak with his renowned 1973 picture entitled Red ceiling; looking at it “the dye it is like red blood that’s wet on the wall”, he reports, “a little red is usually enough, but to work with an entire red surface was a challenge.”
During these same years Eggleston finally completed his well-known Los Alamos first colored series, started in 1966 and later suspended for four years to work on William Eggleston’s Guide. The project consists of twenty-two hundred pictures approximately, collected from the beginning of his first experiments with colors and documenting his researches in his hometown Memphis and the Mississippi Delta, and during his travels from Orleans to Las Vegas and southern California. The 1973 passage through New Mexico with the Corcoran Gallery’s curator Walter Hopps and the actor and director Dennis Hopper, also interested in the representation of the everyday life, is included; Los Alamos, site of the atomic bomb’s clandestine development, was exactly one of the stops. Therefore the title turns revealing: something apparently harmless hides a terrible secret, but the menacing bitter side of the common objects Eggleston uses to portray now amplifies, as it also seems to suggest a sort of self-destructive process innate in the human social system. Nevertheless, the initial idea of publishing thousands of pictures in portfolios was soon abandoned and the project forgotten, and only recently the photographer recovered and reevaluated the entire material.
It looks like the same “revival” process has been sparked off today; Eggleston’s pictures are well-established by now, but the ’60s and ’70s imaginary is oddly exploding on social media with parked vintage cars, old-style buildings, road and motels signs, old laundries, car washes, gas stations, fast foods and buses seats, in search of intense colors and pastel tones. We appropriated the photographer’s vision, but instead of focusing on today’s changes, we’re perpetually looking for clippings of a past reality that doesn’t belong to us anymore. As we don’t want past to vanish we often will to keep it through its own medium, film photography. As Stephen Shore affirms, one of the greatest successor of Eggleston’s poetic, “People need time. It’s much easier to look at the past than to look at the present”. Eggleston’s aim instead remained unchanged until today, always facing the many faces the contemporary sets aside over time; “I still take photographs now. I find it very difficult to tell photographs from last week from the ones taken 20 years before. They look pretty much the same and I am happy I can say that.”
All images © William Eggleston
Written by Greta Fassina