Favourite art/photography: William Eggleston

A few years ago I saw a brilliant exhibition at the Barbican called Everything Was Moving. It was a photography show, highlighting the changing world of the 60s and 70s through the eyes of international photographers. Two of the featured photographers were from America’s deep south: Bruce Davidson, who told the story of the Civil Rights movement, and William Eggleston, who captured the mundane and made it beautiful through clever use of colour and interesting composition. I really enjoyed both photographers, but it was Eggleston’s work that made a particular impression on me, so I was really excited to visit the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition of Eggleston’s portraits at the weekend.

One of the photographs I’d seen at the Barbican was featured in this one too. It’s a photo of two people having a conversation in a diner - except you can’t see either of their faces. The photo is fairly typical of how Eggleston picked up on bold, colourful interiors, often featured in cafes, diners, and fast food places. In this photo, he also chooses not to portray either of the people’s faces, so the woman’s hairstyle becomes the main feature, complemented by the shiny turquoise benches and deep red/brown walls.

Eggleston was exceptionally talented in colour photography, and the two photos below (both featured in the exhibition) demonstrate why. These photos show people going about their normal everyday lives: a boy pushes some supermarket trolleys, and a woman orders something at a counter. Both are bathed in natural sunlight: the boy’s face and arms are lit up, while the sun highlights the woman’s long red hair. These are beautiful, joyful shots, highlighting unselfconscious moments. I prefer photos that are natural and unposed, and I especially love these ones because they capture a simple beauty that might have gone unnoticed otherwise. Eggleston wanted us to greatness in what might otherwise have been dismissed as banality.

In the 1960s, it was very rare for photographers to use colour in street photography, so Eggleston was incredibly experimental. He also rarely gave his photos titles, because that wasn’t the point: I think he just wanted to capture the beauty in everyday life, and treat every photo in the same way. The photos don’t need any context to enable us to interpret them.

One of the other highlights of the exhibition is the collection of Eggleston’s nightclub photos: large, vibrant portraits of people in clubs in Memphis. A woman next to me remarked that these photos could have been taken yesterday. I think she was referring to the way in which the subjects’ hairstyles and clothes looked contemporary, but the photos are so energising and full of life that they really could have been taken last night.


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