Eggleston: An Exceptional Eye for the Ordinary

“In landscapes, cityscapes, street scenes, roadside scenes, at every sort of public converging-point, in dreaming long view and arresting close-up, through hours of dark and light, he sets forth what makes up our ordinary world. What is there, however strange, can be accepted without question; familiarity will be what overwhelms us.”

—Eudora Welty, from the introduction to William Eggleston’s 1989 book of photographs, “The Democratic Forest”

For more than 40 years, photographer William Eggleston has captured common, everyday instances or objects that, through his particular framing, elevates the familiar and makes the ordinary beautiful. Through his lens, a moment can be made monumental.

Eggleston’s photos are not staged. In fact, he says he never even takes the same picture twice. “I only take one frame of each picture and then it is over so quickly,” he said. “I’m thinking about the next one and not planning it, but thinking about it, you know, what might be coming up next.”

A sweeping retrospective of William Eggleston’s photographs, “William Eggleston: Democratic Camera, Photographs and Video, 1961-2008,” opened at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York last year. Now on tour, the show is currently on display at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

In a review in The New Yorker, Peter Schjeldahl wrote that to experience the exhibit “is to be pummeled by eccentric beauty, and to wonder about it.” Whether a picture of a sign, a field, a family member or total stranger, Eggleston catapults the mundane to a place where we contemplate more metaphysical questions about the magnitude of beauty we miss all around us.

'Morton, Mississippi' by William Eggleston. Copyright Eggleston Artistic Trust. Courtesy Cheim & Read, N.Y.[Click here to watch an audio slide show and hear an interview with William Eggleston]

In 1976, Eggleston rocked the art world with a solo show of his photographs at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The exhibit was almost universally panned by critics who did not hold back in their distaste for one key (and at the time, unique), aspect of Eggleston’s work. His transgression: using color instead of black and white. Up to that point, most “art” photos were exclusively black and white. Today, those photographs are just as nearly universally praised rather than derided, recognized as a milestone in contemporary art.

He uses a process called dye transfer for printing his color images, common for commercial production used in magazines and ads. “That is what got me interested. I would look at these advertisements say in Vogue, let’s say for example. And I kept thinking, ‘I wonder what Eggleston would look like in this process?’” he said. He continues to use dye transfer, although the paper best suited for printing is in increasingly short supply.

Born in Memphis in 1939, Eggleston has spent much of his life there and continues to call it home. And though many of his more recognizable pictures were taken in the region, Eggleston says with a drawl that he does not consider himself a “Southern photographer.” He says he uses the same approach wherever he is. “Like right now, I’m working mostly in Paris and not [working] any differently when in this part of the country.”

John Szarkowski, MoMA’s longtime director of photography (who also organized and curated Eggleston’s 1976 solo show) sums it up well in his introduction to the exhibit: “One can say then that in these photographs form and content are indistinguishable — which is to say that the pictures mean precisely what they appear to mean. Attempting to translate these appearances into words is surely a fool’s errand, in the pursuit of which no two fools would chose the same unsatisfactory words.”

“William Eggleston: Democratic Camera, Photographs and Video, 1961-2008” will be on display until Sept. 20 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington.

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