Always Fresh – A Look at William Eggleston’s Photography

In brief:

  • William Eggleston is an American photographer famous for his groundbreaking colour photography
  • It is largely because of Eggleston that colour photography is now accepted as a genuine art form
  • Eggleston’s photographs depict the every day world in all its banality
  • The importance of Eggleston’s photography lies in its power to show us the world that is always fresh

Info box: What is Colour Transparency Film >>

William Eggleston Girls on Sofa

It is perhaps thanks to the American photographer William Eggleston, more than anyone else, that colour photography is viewed as a credible art form today.

Despite not being the first one to have colour photographs exhibited at a major gallery, the popular acceptance of Eggleston’s work nevertheless spelled a sea change in the attitudes towards colour in art photography.

Since Eggleston, colour photography has unequivocally been recognised as being on par with black and white photography. Colour photography has moved from being seen as a channel for garish, mediocre tourist photos to commanding profound artistic value in itself.

In fact, in this post-Eggleston era, even the idea that colour would somehow not be suitable for artistic expression, is an odd one for most photographers.

Southern Childhoold

William Eggleston Airplane Drink

William Eggleston was born in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1939. He was raised in the small town of Sumner, located in the neighbouring state of Mississippi. Little William’s father was an engineer by profession, and his mother a daughter of a prominent local judge. The family was not rich but wealthy enough to send their son into a private boarding school.

The teenaged Eggleston enrolled at Webb School, a private coeducational college-preparatory boarding and day school, located in Bell Buckle, Tennessee. The school had been founded in 1870 and is now the oldest continuously operating boarding school in the southern states of the USA. In its early years, Webb School was know for fostering more Rhodes Scholars than any other secondary school in the whole of United States.

William Eggleston Girl in Car

Aside from Eggleston, Webb School has produced a handful of other famous alumni. Wayne Rogers (1933-2015) played Tapper John in the American television series M*A*S*H. Allen Steele (born in 1958) is a journalist and a Hugo Award-winning science fiction writer. Andrew Glaze (1920-2016) was an award-winning poet, playwright and novelist. The school has also produced a number of state governors and university professors.

The purpose of the school, when Eggleston studied there, was to mould its students into Southern gentlemen. According to this traditional mindset, it was hunting and sports – and not much else – that were considered desirable interests for a young man. Eggleston had been artistically inclined from early childhood. He enjoyed drawing and playing the piano, as well as collecting postcard and picture cut-outs from magazines. For him, the time at Webb School, while not without its pleasant moments, was, if nothing else, confusing.

“I never felt that I didn’t fit in,” Eggleston remembers his time at the school, “But I probably didn’t.” The school had a Spartan routine intended to “build character” and Eggleston describes it as a place “where it was effeminate to like music and painting.”

Abstract Impressionism

William Eggleston Louisiana 1974

Having graduated from Webb School, Eggleston attended Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, for a year. At Vanderbilt, he was gifted a Leica camera by a friend, which either kindled his interest in photography or, more likely, served to cement it.

After Vanderbilt, Eggleston spent a semester at Delta State College in Cleveland, Mississippi, and moved from there to study at the University of Mississippi. He studied five years at the Ole Miss but without acquiring a university degree. The time at the university would be important for his future career as a photographer, however.

As part of his arts studies, Eggleston learned about abstract impressionism from the painter Tom Young. Some of the aesthetics from this post-World War II art movement can be seen in Eggleston’s later works, notably in his depiction of large patches of colour.

William Eggleston Graceland

Abstract expressionism was the first truly American art movement. It developed on the basis of surrealism which had bloomed in Europe at the beginning of the 1920s. As in surrealism, spontaneous, even subconscious creation was of the essence in abstract expressionism. It was also influenced by the thinking of Wolfgang Paalen (1905-1959), an Austrian surrealist artist who pondered in his writings the intricacies of quantum physics and reflected on “totemic vision and the spatial structure of native-Indian painting from British Columbia.”

Some of the more prominent members of the abstract expressionist movement included Jackson Pollock (1912-1956), the Dutch artist Willem de Kooning (1904-1997) and Robert de Niro Sr. (1922-1993). He was the father of actor Robert de Niro whose directorial debut, “A Bronx Tale”, from 1993, was dedicated to him.

From Black and White to Colour

William Eggleston Supermarket Boy with Carts

William Eggleston’s early inspiration as a photographer was the work of Rober Frank (born in 1924) and Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004). Frank is a Swiss-American photographer and documentary film maker best known for documenting American society in his seminal photography book, The Americans (published in France in 1958 and in America the following year with an introduction by Jack Kerouac.)

Henri Cartier-Bresson was a French humanist photographer and cofounder of the international photographic cooperative Magnum. He popularised the term ‘decisive moment’ which – besides being the name of a book, published in 1952 – stood for successful capturing of a fleeting moment into a meaningful photograph.

In the tradition of Frank and Cartier-Bresson, Eggleston’s photographs were in black and white until the mid-1960s when he was introduced to colour photography by the American photographer, painter and sculptor William Christenberry (1936-2016).

William Eggleston Huntsville, Alabama

According to Eggleston, switching on to colour photography was a natural progression for him. “I had wanted to see a lot of things in colour because the world is in colour,” he says in an interview with film director Michael Almereyda in 2008. “I was affected by it all the time, particularly certain times of the day when suddenly things really starkly stand out.”

Since the late 60s, a large part of Eggleston’s work has been shot on colour transparency film. While teaching at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, during 1973 and 1974, Eggleston discovered dye-transfer printing which significantly impacted the look of his photos.

Dye-transfer printing is a work-intensive method of transferring images on photographic paper. It utilises similar printing plates as traditional magazine printing. There are four separate print plates for each of the primary colours (magenta, yellow and cyan) as well as for black. The images resulting from the printing process are highly saturated and have a richness and depth of tones unmatched by any other method.

Currently, there are only about a dozen artisans in the world using dye-transfer printing. The Pan Matrix and the Matrix film needed for the printing process were discontinued by Kodak in 1991 and 1994, respectively. The work continues, for the time being, with materials hoarded by enthusiasts at great expense at the closure of film production.

Famous Photographs by William Eggleston

The Red Ceiling

William Eggleston The Red Ceiling

Some of Eggleston’s most famous photographs are produced utilising dye-transfer printing. One of these images is the striking “The Red Ceiling” from 1973. According to Eggleston, “‘The Red Ceiling’ is so powerful, that in fact I’ve never seen it reproduced on the page to my satisfaction. When you look at the dye it is like red blood that’s wet on the wall.”

The photograph depicts a detail of a room with red ceiling and wall. From the ceiling hangs a purple light bulb. Three electric chords approach the light fixture from three different directions in a threatening or supporting manner, depending on your viewpoint. On the wall, there is a garish triptyc of photographs showing unclear human figures.

The Red Ceiling is also known as Greenwood, Mississippi, 1973, and it is probably the most famous of Eggleston’s photographs. There is a dye-transfer print of the photograph measuring 35.2 cm x 55.1 cm (13.9 in x 21.7 in) kept at both J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

The Tricycle

William Eggleston Tricycle

The tricycle is a simple photograph of a children’s tricycle photographed from a low angle in a suburban setting. The photo was taken in Memphis in 1969 and a print of it sold for $578,500 in 2012.

Whether the photograph is worth the exorbitant price is a matter of opinion. The high-end art world, inhabited by rich collectors, does not deal in real but perceived value. For collectors and galleries, art is a currency which declines or increases in worth based on speculation and manipulation.

The photograph may, however, be seen as a turning point in general artistic perception. It is a somewhat iconic-looking representation of an everyday item and, with it, of a way of life which fact, paradoxically, raises it above the mundane.

Eggleston describes the experience of taking the photograph to Almereyda: “I was searching around a pretty barren suburban neighbourhood in Memphis for no particular reason, in a place I’m not familiar with. This [thing] was just sitting in the street near the curb and I was sitting on the curb looking at it. I [put] the camera on the curb, using something like my wallet to cushion it.”

The reason the tricycle was photographed from such a low angle was that “it was not so interesting to stand at normal standing height and look down at this thing so I got down level with it.”

Untitled 1969-1970

William Eggleston Untitled 1969-1970

Untitled 1969-1970 is a portrait of Eggleston’s uncle, Adyn Schuyler Sr. and Jasper Staples, one of the servants who – according to Eggleston’s testimony – raised him. The photograph was taken at a funeral at Cassidy Bayou in Sumner, Mississippi.

The photo was produced using dye-transfer printing. It is an interesting study of matching postures and a shared interest: whatever it is that is happening off-camera is occupying the attention of both men.

There is a cinematic element to the photo and it could easily be a screen capture from a police drama, for instance.

William Eggleston’s Aesthetics

William Eggleston Diner

William Eggleston’s subject matter is the everyday world. The mundane environment of the suburban southern United States is shown in endless, banal detail.

He photographs “old tyres, Dr Pepper Machines, discarded air conditioners, vending machines, empty and dirty Coca-Cola bottles, torn posters, power poles and power wires, street barricades, one-way signs, detour signs, No Parking signs, parking meters and palm trees,” writes Eudora Welty in her introduction to The Democratic Forest, a book of photographs published by Eggleston in 1989.

In Welty’s estimation, Eggleston shows us the “grain of the present, like the cross-section of the tree.” According to her, Eggleston’s “extraordinary, compelling honest beautiful and unsparing photographs all have to do with the quality of our lives in the ongoing world.”

Eggleston’s photography has an uncanny resemblance to the photo realistic and hyper realistic painting of such artists as Richard Estes (born in 1932), Ralph Goings (1928-2016) and Robert Bechler (born in 1932).

This quality is especially apparent in photographs depicting condiment trays with bright red ketchup bottles and salt and pepper shakers, girls lounging on a sofa or queuing up at a hamburger kiosk, motel rooms with vintage tv-sets or more or less startled pedestrians walking on the street.

The Power of Eggleston’s Photography

William Eggleston Untitled 1971-1973

One of the first curators to buy Eggleston’s photography was John Szarkowski (1925-2007), director of photography at MoMa from 1962 to 1991. He purchased a photograph for the museum’s collections in 1969. A private exhibition of Eggleston’s photography was shown at MoMa in 1976.

The exhibition in 1976 is generally seen as a watershed moment in terms of the “acceptance of colour photography by the highest validating institution,” as described by editor Mark Holborn.

It was not the first solo exhibition of colour photography at MoMa, however. Eliot Porter (1901-1990), known for his colour photographs of nature, had an exhibition of colour photographs at the museum already in the 1940s. A decade later, MoMa exhibited the colour photography of Ernst Haas (1921-1986), an Austrian photojournalist and colour photographer.

Perhaps the importance of Eggleston’s photography lies in its energy. Seeing Eggleston’s photographs for the first time left Walter Hopps (1932-2005), a curator at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington D.C. “stunned.” According to him, he had never seen “anything like” them.

Now, more than forty years later, Eggleston’s photography is no less stunning. Clearly, then, its power lies not only in novelty – unless by new we mean something that is always fresh.

List of Photography Books Published by William Eggleston

(Please note: the following list of Eggleston’s publications is not complete by any means. The publication year denotes the first printing.)

      Los Alamos, 1974

        Election Eve, 1977

          Morals of Vision, 1978

            Flowers, 1978

              Wedgwood Blue, 1979

                Seven, 1979

                  Troubled Waters, 1980

                    The Louisiana Project, 1980

                      Graceland, 1984

                        Aperture Ninety-Six, 1984

                          The Democratic Forest, 1989

                            Faulkner’s Mississippi, 1990

                              Ancient and Modern, 1992

                                Horses and Dogs, 1994

                                  The Hasselblad Award 1998: William Eggleston, 1999

                                    2 ¼, 1999

                                      William Eggleston, 2001

                                        William Eggleston’s Guide, 2002

                                          Black and White Pictures, 2005

                                            The Spirit of Dunkerque, 2006

                                              William Eggleston: Democratic Camera, Photographs and Video, 1961-2008, 2008

                                                Stranded in Canton, 2008

                                                  5 x 7, 2009

                                                    Paris, 2009

                                                      Before Color, 2010

                                                        For Now, 2010

                                                          Chromes, 2011

                                                            Los Alamos Revisited. 2012

                                                              At Zenith, 2013

                                                                From Black & White to Color, 2014

                                                                  At Zenith, 2014

                                                                  List of Photography Awards Granted to William Eggleston

                                                                      Photographer’s Fellowship, National Endowment for the Arts, 1975

                                                                        National Endowment for the Arts, 1978

                                                                          Photographic Society of Japan, 1989

                                                                            Distinguished Achievement Award, University of Memphis, 1996

                                                                              Hasselblad Award, Hasselblad Foundation, Gothenburg, Sweden, 1998

                                                                                Special 150th Anniversary Medal and Honorary Fellowship (HonFRPS), Royal Photographic Society, London, 2003

                                                                                  Getty Images Lifetime Achievement Award at the International Center of Photography (ICP) Infinity Awards, 2004

                                                                                    Outstanding Contribution to Photography Award, Sony World Photography Awards, World Photography Organisation, London, 2013

                                                                                    What is colour transparency film

                                                                                    Colour transparency film is also known as:

                                                                                        Slide Film

                                                                                          Chrome Film

                                                                                            Chromogenic Film

                                                                                            Transparency film works by producing a positive image on a transparent plastic base, whereas with negative film the light is captured on a strip of film in a reversed order: on a film negative, lighter areas of the image appear darker and the darker ones lighter.

                                                                                            With colour negatives, the colours, too, are reversed to their complementary colours, in addition to the lightness reversal. In order to see the picture in its intended state, the negative film will have to be projected onto light sensitive photo paper via a photographic enlarger, which absorbs the image and returns the colours and the lightness values to normal.

                                                                                            By recording the colours as they appear in real life, colour transparency film makes do without the additional step of having to print the images on photo paper. Instead, the photos are projected onto a screen with a slide projector.

                                                                                            For photography, slide film is less forgiving than negative film. In digital terms, a negative is like a raw file which gives you a lot of leeway in post production.

                                                                                            Chrome film, on the other hand, is pretty much like a JPG. There’s only so much you can do in the dark room. In fact, it’s best to nail the shot in camera as – along with limited post processing options – slide film comes with a much more limited dynamic range than the negative film.

                                                                                            Slide Film Formats

                                                                                            Slide film is attached to a plastic, or sometimes cardboard, frame measuring 2×2 inch, or 50.8mm x 50.8mm.

                                                                                            The size of the film varies, however. This means that the area within the frame, occupied by the film, varies as well. The larger the transparency the thinner the frame will be.

                                                                                            Transparency film comes in the following formats:

                                                                                            The 35mm slides, measuring 24mm x 36mm (0.9 inch x 1.4 inch) are the most common ones.

                                                                                            The 110 slide is the smallest transparency film size. Its dimensions are 13mm x 17mm (0.51 inch x 0.66 inch) and its production started in 1972.

                                                                                            The 127 Superslide is the largest chrome film size at nearly 2×2 inch (50.8mm), which leaves only very little space for the frame. It was mainly used in postcard slides sold to tourists, less often in personal photography.

                                                                                            The 127 Slide is the next in line with the film size of 40mm x 40mm (1.57 inch x 1.57 inch). This slide type was produced by Kodak from 1912 until 1995.

                                                                                            The dimensions of the 126 Slide are 28mm x 28mm (1.1 inch x 1.1 inch) and it was produced by Kodak from 1963 onwards.

                                                                                            Lastly, the 35mm Half Frame Slide measures 18mm x 24mm (0.7 inch x 0.9 inch). It is half the size of the normal 35mm slide.

                                                                                            Benefits and Drawbacks of Slide Film

                                                                                            Slides are ideal for social gatherings because they’re easier to showcase for a large audience. On the flip side, the photographer is dependant on bulky equipment and a suitable space for sharing and enjoying his imagery.

                                                                                            In the digital photography era, these considerations are obsolete for most people. But, when film was the only way to record images, photographers had to choose between having the convenience of the negative film or the superior quality of the transparency film.

                                                                                            In many cases, the slide film was used by commercial and professional photographers in projects where colour accuracy and the clarity of the image was of the utmost importance, for instance when photographing fashion catalogues or when copying art.

                                                                                            List of Colour Transparency Films that You Can Still Buy

                                                                                            Fujifilm Provia 100F (Produces rich colours and is often used for portraiture)

                                                                                            Fujifilm Velvia 100 (High colour saturation, very well suited for nature and landscape photography)

                                                                                            Fujifilm Velvia 50 (Excellent for landscape photography)

                                                                                            Lomography X Pro 200 Slide Film (Often cross processed but can be processed normally, too)

                                                                                            Lomography Peacock Color Slide Film – Color Slide 110 Film (Another cross-process film)

                                                                                            AgfaPhoto CT Precisa 100 Color Transparency Film

                                                                                            Kodak Ektachrome E100 (Rereleased by Kodak in 2017, very good for portrait photography)

                                                                                            What is E6 Slide Film

                                                                                            The E-6 Process is a chromogenic photographic process for developing slide film. Unlike other developing processes, it allows processing of slides on the equipment used for developing black and white negative films or C-41 colour films.

                                                                                            The new E-6 process replaced Kodak’s E-3 and E-4 processes which both had serious disadvantages. The transparencies produced with the E-3 process faded easily. The E-4 process relied on the use of polluting chemicals.

                                                                                            There are two variations of the E-6 process, with the commercial laboratories utilising six different chemical baths and the hobbyist version only using three baths.


                                                                                            William Eggleston:

                                                                                            Exhibition: ‘William Eggleston Portraits’ at The National Portrait Gallery, London:

                                                                                            Abstract expressionism:

                                                                                            The Phoblographer Explains: Chrome Film vs Negative Film:

                                                                                            5 Beautiful Slide Film Emulsions You Can Still Get Your Hands On:

                                                                                            Kodak Brings Back Ektachrome Slide Film for Photographers and Filmmakers:

                                                                                            Where to Buy / Develop Film in Australia:

                                                                                            Slides / Transparencies:

                                                                                            Dye Transfer: the Ultimate Color Print:

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