William Eggleston is one of the most important contemporary master and pioneer of color photography. In this article I write a tribute to his particular democratic way of looking around. For him “Nothing was more important or less important”, and everything is worthy of being photographed. Again, he is fond of the dear old film; he said that “I don’t think much about the digital world, because I am in the analog world!”. Read more after the jump!
The American photographer William Eggleston (born July 27, 1939) is one of the most important masters of color photography. His early works in black and white were inspired by the book The Americans of Robert Frank, and by The Decisive Moment of Henri Cartier-Bresson. In the middle of the 1960s he began to experiment with colors, and in the 1970s he discovered the dye transfer printing, a technique which allows full control of density, hue, saturation and tonal scale of each primary color (each one can be dosed without interfering with the other two).
The use of pure primary components results in vibrant colors that are impossible to achieve with other methods. In fact, the dyes used in this process are spectrally pure compared to normal coupler-induced photographic dyes and the transfer allows to obtain a larger color profile and a wider tonal scale than any other process, including ink-jet printing.
However, this artists is famous also for his great attention in the use of colors in his compositions. He was a pioneer in “true” color photography, thinking not only in terms of form but also taking a carefully attention to the colors of the real world. The former curator of MoMa, John Szarkowski wrote in his book William Eggleston guide: “While editing directly from life, photographers have found it too difficult to see simultaneously both the blue and the sky”.
In this introduction, Szarkowski analyzes the two most important causes of failure of color photography. In fact, before the great works of William Eggleston, Stephen Shore and Joel Meyerowitz, many great photographers manifested little enthusiasm regarding colors.
Szarkowski wrote here that the first cause of failure “might be described as black-and-white photographs made with color film, in which the problem of color is solved by inattention. The better photographs of the old National Geographic were often of this sort: no matter how cobalt the blue skies and how crimson the red shirts, the color in such pictures is extraneous-a failure of form.”
The second cause of failure “comprises photographs of beautiful colors in pleasing relationships. The nominal subject matter of these pictures is often the walls of old buildings, or the prows of sailboats reflected in rippled water. Such photographs can be recognized by their resemblance to reproductions of Synthetic Cubist or Abstract Expressionist paintings. It is their unhappy fate to remind us of something similar but better.”
However, in the photos of William Eggleston, often of trivial subjects, form and content are indistinguishable, and forms and colors coincide.
Another important feature of many his photos is that the composition seems to radiate from a central, circular core. To write this tribute I took a series of 6×6 photos with my Lubitel cameras loaded with Kodak Portra 160 professional color film.
In these photos I adopted the “democratic way of seeing” of this great artist, for which everything is worthy of being photographed.
So I took photos of a rusted door, of a vase of flowers, an old (maybe dying) pigeon, a public phone, garbage bags and so on. I tried to make form and colors coincide: for example, in the photo of the car repair shop, I waited until a blue car stopped here, using few colors: the dominant white, the yellow (see the road line and the colors of the stripes on the left) and blue (again, the stripes and the car). In every photo, I placed the main subject in the central position. However, in these photos there are other details that you can analyze starting from the center and spreading toward the border; see for example the cigarette butt at the bottom of the pigeon’s photo.
William Eggleston has an official website here that is worth a visit, especially if you are interested in color photography.
A Salute to the Masters is a series dedicated to great photographers that I like. I posted other tributes for Walker Evans, Lee Friedlander, Helen Levitt, Ernst Haas, Stephen Shore, Gabriele Basilico, Robert Adams, Thomas Struth, J.H. Lartigue, Elliott Erwitt, Robert Frank, Gianni Berengo Gardin, André Kertész, Willy Ronis, Brassaï, Rodchenko, Dan Graham, Henry Grant and Izis Bidermanas. I especially love street photography and urban architectural photography.