Adding some colour to the life of Eggleston

Story by Jack Foley

THE WORK of one of the pioneers of colour photography as a serious artistic medium, William Eggleston, is currently being exhibited at the Hayward Gallery in London, running in tandem with that of Ansel Adams.

This retrospective exhibition is the most comprehensive showing of this American photographer’s work in Britain to date. It presents over 200 works, much of it unseen in this country before.

From his early photographs in black and white in the 60s and his vintage dye transfer prints of the 70s to recent large-scale colour works of the American desert and Japan, commissioned by the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris, the exhibition promises to offer the definitive insight into one of modern photography's most controversial and talented artists.

Drawn from public and private collections in Europe and the United States, the exhibition has been organised by the Fondation Cartier pour l'art contemporain.

Viewers will be able to gain an insight into the originality, subtlety and emotional power of Eggleston's work; the way in which he finds his subject matter around him in the American South: in the rural and urban landscape, the roadsides, parking lots, diners and motel rooms, and in the homes and gatherings of the people of the city suburbs.

His photographic output is enormous and he has described his approach as 'democratic', and his subject as ''whatever's out there'; 'When people ask me what I do, I say that I'm taking pictures of life today,' he once commented.

According to the Hayward website: "Eggleston's photographs show an acute and instinctive sense of colour and form behind their deceptive casualness. In the late 70s, he began to make images without using the viewfinder, shooting film as if firing a shotgun, finding surprising viewpoints and angles.

"As he says: 'Sometimes I like the idea of making a picture that does not look like a human picture. Humans make pictures which tend to be about five feet above the ground looking out horizontally. I like very fast flying insects moving all over and I wonder what their view is from moment to moment.'

"His mastery of composition is allied to a sustained experimentation with seductive, often saturated colour. The dye transfer process which he favours allows him to control the tone and intensity of each individual colour to powerful emotive effect. In his images, unremarkable subject matter is invested with intense, if ambiguous, significance. He finds the sublime in the commonplace, and a timelessness, a strange beauty and sense of latent threat, in the most mundane of objects and fragmentary scenes."

The Hayward exhibition includes works from his ground-breaking exhibition, William Eggleston's Guide, held at The Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1976.

Taken in and around Memphis between 1969 and 1971, these photographs focused on everyday scenes: a tricycle seen from ground level, Halloween revellers at night, the tiled walls of a shower, the inside of an oven. The show was a sensational debut.

Many critics mistook the images for 'snapshots', and were shocked by the apparent banality of his subjects and, above all, by his bold use of colour. Colour photography had rarely been shown before in a museum context: this was the start of a wave of interest in the medium which continues to this day.

Eggleston's distinctive and unsettling vision, and his very personal view of the world, has inspired successive generations of photographers and image-makers: the film-maker David Lynch, and photographers Nan Goldin and Martin Parr come readily to mind, but his influence extends more broadly, to the pages of photography, fashion and design magazines worldwide.


Born in 1939 in Memphis, Tennessee, where he still lives, Eggleston first acquired a camera, a Canon Rangefinder, in 1957, followed by his first Leica in 1958.

His main exposure to photography was through the popular magazines of the fifties, until around 1960, when he discovered Robert Frank’s work and Henri Cartier-Bresson’s famous book, The Decisive Moment.

His first photographs in black and white show the important influence these photographers had on his work. He began to experiment with colour transparency film in 1965 and, in 1967, he went to New York where he met photographers Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander.

Together with Eggleston, they were part of a generation of post-war photographers whose works liberated the medium from the restrictive rules and conventions of the period.

In 1976, the influential William Eggleston’s Guide was published to accompany his major exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art, New York. In the same year he was commissioned by Rolling Stone to photograph Georgia before the election of President Jimmy Carter.

He was a lecturer in Visual and Environment Studies at Harvard University and, during the 1980s, he photographed the film set of Annie, the making of David Byrne’s film True Stories, and Elvis Presley’s mansion, Graceland.

He has produced many important portfolios of work including English Rose and The Democratic Forest. Recent exhibitions include William Eggleston and the Colour Tradition at the John Paul Getty Museum, California, 1999-2000 and Dye Transfer Prints at the Gallery of Contemporary Photography, California, 1999. Ancient and Modern, the last major exhibition of his work in the UK, was held at the Barbican, London, in 1992.

A fully-illustrated catalogue published by Thames & Hudson accompanies the exhibition.

Hayward Gallery on the South Bank, London SE1. Public enquiries: 020 7960 5226; Recorded information: 020 7261 0127; Advance bookings: 020 7960 4242
Admission (also includes entrance to ANSEL ADAMS: £7 (concessions £5); Children aged 16 and under free. Members free. Opening hours: daily 10am-6pm, until 8pm on Tuesdays and Wednesdays

Top left link, the Hayward Gallery website
Top right link, guide to William Eggleston on the web.

GUIDE TO PHOTOGRAPHS: Main picture: Untitled, 1975. Dye-transfer print. Eggleston Artistic Trust © Eggleston Artistic Trust.
Above right: Untitled, 1973. Dye-transfer print. Private Collection, Oslo, courtesy of Peder Lund © Eggleston Artistic Trust.