William Eggleston Portraits
Exhibition at National Portrait Gallery, London on until the the 23rd of October 2016.
Devoe Money “She was a swell, wonderful person’ ‘very smart, too …..She was not a rich lady. She didn’t inherit a lot, ….’
This quote, from the wall notes, gives you an idea of the background and world view of William Eggleston. A photographer of the American social landscape, working mostly in the South around his hometown of Memphis, Tennessee. Who became highly influential though his exhibition in 1976 at MOMA in New York of a set of colour images that was published as William Eggleston’s Guide
In thinking about how one makes work, I really like this quote that is attributed to Tom Young ,who recommended. “When Eggleston complained that he was uninspired because he felt indifferent to the things around him, Young suggested Eggleston should channel this ambivalence and photograph with equal intensity regardless of how he felt about a subject” I really think this is a way of not having to think about what makes something photographicable, and think it would help other photographers to make work of what they are encountering which I think is what I like about Eggleston’s work. Often when I have shown Eggleston’s work to students, they have said things like it is plain, ordinary ,or just do not get why it is so often considered important in photography circles.
Echoing the quote by Adrian Searle, writing in the Guardian, “Eggleston’s photography has been derided for its ordinariness, for its compositional blankness, even for its use of colour.”
Whereas, I think, it takes a bit of thinking about as to why his work is held up by the photographic establishment as important. I feel it is something to do with his work with colour, class and the era that it was made in. Things have moved on as they should and the work does reflect the world of its time. As all good photography does.
The Eggleston exhibition is effectively only two rooms with the b&w work first at the entrance followed by his colour work. With copies of his portrait book on the seat in the centre of the second room.
In the wall description for the portrait of the woman in the blue dress, there is an allusion to bondage of women in the reference to the chain in the post beside the woman in the portrait. This I found strange, as Eggleston so often says nothing about his thinking when making images, and here, I felt it is the art institution alluding to things, that I suspect, the photographer never had any intention, to allude to.
After some reflection and time to think about this, I think, it is time to stop the hero worship of Eggleston. As he is a product of his time, and I think is why he is still regarded. On the day, I visited, the audience was mostly white with a lone southeast Asian person present. Yet for me, when I now look at the work, it ties to a time that was deeply divided racially, particularly in the American South, a time that is reflected in Eggleston’s images.
The work on display, is a mix of Silver gelatine prints of the black and white images and the colour images are a mix of Dye transfer and pigment prints, printed at various times. The dye transfer process, always gets explained as something that Eggleston, appropriated from the commercial photography of the time, for use in his art photography. I personally, think it was because he was financially independent enough, to be able to afford to print on this expensive process. One can see the difference in the prints, but you have to train your eye to be able to see it. This is a sign of how far inkjet printing has come.
A few technical points. The print of T.C Boring displayed in the gallery is really dark and I felt printed poorly. whereas the level of detail that can be seen in the image when printed in the accompanying book is better, it is much lighter, thereby enabling you, to read the image better.
The portraits from the series Nightclub Portraits, are all pigment prints and are incredibly sharp, made according to the wall description on a 5×7 camera, with flash lighting the only time that I have seen Eggleston use photographic lighting of any sort and deviate widely from using his traditional Leica rangefinder camera. Eggleston was an avid collector of Leica cameras.
I would recommend going to see this exhibition if you want to see a side of Egglestons work that you would not normally see. He is more known for other work so this set of portraits is a renewed look at his work from different perspective.