William Eggleston is one of a small group of people who created color photography as a viable medium in art. William Eggleston’s Guide, the catalogue for an exhibition of his work at the Museum of Modern Art in 1976, is a group of approximately 50 images that served to establish Eggleston’s reputation as a major figure in American photography. In addition to Eggleston’s astonishing photographs, the book is graced by a brilliant essay by John Szarkowski, the legendary Curator of Photographs at MOMA.
Szarkowski makes one point in his essay which is critical to understanding not only Eggleston’s work, but the work of any photographer working in color. “Form is perhaps the point in art. The goal is not to make something factually impeccable, but seamlessly persuasive. . . . For the photographer who demanded formal rigor from his pictuers, color was an enormous complication of a problem already cruelly difficult. . . . Eggleston’s pictures are perceived in color, where the wedge of a purple necktie . . . has a different compositional torque than its equivalent panchromatic gray, as well as a different meaning.” Szarkowski also notes that Eggleston works from the personal and private, but that these images, seemingly trivial, in their public display become available as “carrier[s] of symbolic freight.”
Szarkowski has hit it right on the head. These pictures are more than compelling, they are somehow mesmerizing. An interior view (from a dining room?) shows, through several rooms of the house, a sliver of outdoor light, the only coolness is a scene othwise bathed in a warm amber glow. One notices that, the closer the images move toward monochrome, the more the composition becomes “traditional.” From a formal point of view, color is an active element in Eggleston’s work, and one that introduces a subtle dramatic tension into scenes that otherwise are perfectly banal.
Several of Eggleston’s classic images are included in this group – a flaming barbecue grill seen from just inside a garage, with a fender, a bicycle, and portion of a human figure: formally, this is an extremely complex image in which Eggleston has made use of all possible elements, including color, to instill a sense of order in what otherwise would be a completely random and chaotic view. A tricycle, with a suburban ranch house in the background, takes on an almost mythic monumentality, shot from a low angle and completely dominating an otherwise uninspiring landscape. An old Buick, well maintained but no longer young, occupies a central position in a view of a section of town that, like the car, is no longer new but still serviceable. (It’s worth noting, with reference to this picture in particular, that Eggleston’s basic composition is circular, although he has no qualms about using strong linear elements – vertical, horizontal, or diagonal – to sharpen the image.)
There is also a lot of mystery involved here – a function of Eggleston’s use of “private” images. The images are singularly unrevealing of any particulars: as with any photograph, they are frozen fragments of events, with very little in the way of context, like snapshots just come back from the one-hour photo. In Eggleston’s hands, the “events” are ostensibly trivial, but he forbears to give us any clues that might help to fix a narrative meaning, and so they become much larger, leaving the realm of fact behind entirely.
Szarkowski points out in his essay that Eggleston, like other photographers who finally mastered color, built on traditions and innovations, not from art, but from vernacular sources. It is perhaps axiomatic, although never stated, that not only does an artist stand somewhat outside his context, but that he has been trained to see it in a way that most people are not. (To quote myself, “There’s a picture everywhere you look.”) That Eggleston can take situations for which most people would regret having snapped the shutter and turn them into compelling and magical images of art speaks not only of his mastery of his craft, but of his ability to connect with with audience.