William Eggleston – One Picture of One Thing

NK0_1572-eggleston-guideFollowing on from my earlier post on Banal and the Topographical Movement, I ordered a copy of William Eggleston’s Guide (*1). Having read about the original guide which was published in 1976 in conjunction with the Photographs by William Eggleston Exhibition and having looked at so many of his photographs on-line it was something of a revelation to discover that Guide had been republished in 2002 and re-printed many times since. It is a beautifully presented book, elegantly bound with a faux leather look and we are told, on the copyright page, that the publishers have endeavoured to reproduce the original form.

As I have been working towards presenting assignment 2 I have been thinking about how to capture a place from a personal perspective and how this differs from the type of travel photography I am more used to seeing and, to a greater or lesser degree, mimicking. Because Eggleston’s images are centred around one place I feel it is worthwhile to divert myself once more from preparing  assignment 2 to look more deeply at this collection.

Szarkowski’s introduction to The Guide feeds into my thinking as he talks of how he sees this collection as being very personal to Eggleston as the subjects of Memphis and northern Mississippi were the photographer’s home, he saw them as being as much about his identity as about the places. I question whether the area being his home is the only, or even main, reason that the images are personal or whether they are a personal statement because of the viewpoint he adopts, because of the way he sees the place and because he decided to photograph what he saw in a very direct manner without embellishment and without obvious concern for the perceived laws of subject matter or composition. Perhaps using a place he knew intimately enabled him to more easily create this style as his attention was more on photography and the detail of the place than on understanding and working his way into the location. In a BBC Film interview*(2) Eggleston’s wife makes the point that he photographed Memphis and northern Mississippi because that was where he was and what was there. She tells the story that he asked a close friend what he could photograph as everything was so ugly and his friend told him to photograph the ugly and this is what he did.

Looking at this body of work presented in its original form is an improved basis for review. Review via internet tends to be unstructured and the viewer is not often being led through a collection in the sequence the artist or, in this case the curator, intended. In the same BBC interview *(2) Eggleston hints that this collection was primarily chosen by Szarkowski, they worked together but Eggleston’s son suggests that his father would not have been able to make the choices.


Some reviewers suggest that Eggelston’s style is casual and that part of the sense of banality is created by this style so whereas Shore will photograph ordinary places with very careful and studied compositions using a large format camera, Eggelston’s images are snap-shots in the true sense of the words taken with a 35mm Leica. We know that Eggelston was influenced by and interested in amateur colour snaps so he is probably looking to create some sense of the snap-shot in his images but The Guide is a collection of carefully considered compositions that are anything but casual. In fact I do not believe that it is in Eggelston’s character to be casual.

A number of interviewers report that Eggleston is measured in his response to questions, for example Sean O’Hagan writing in the Guardian *(3) says:

“Eggleston is the slowest and most softly spoken person I have ever met, and the silence while he considers a question is so deep and long that I find myself wondering if he has simply chosen to ignore my fumbling attempts at elucidation.”

In the BBC documentary *(2) when he is being interviewed we see the same carefully considered reaction to questions and, in the same film, we see Eggelston taking photographs around Memphis. He wanders, camera in hand and at the ready, moving slowly whilst looking at the detail of the landscape, he homes in on a potential subject, adjusts his position one, two or three times and then shoots one frame and walks away. It is clear that his photography reflects his personality, slow, measured and thoughtful. He says that he has a personal discipline to only take one picture of one thing. He decided upon this after realising that having multiple shots of the same subject made later selection confusing and difficult. When asked what if the one shot is no good, he shrugs, it doesn’t matter.

Each composition in The Guide is completely intentional, they are the result of this process of spotting a subject, stalking it to find the right angle and finding the right composition to tell the story he sees in the subject. He would argue that he is just photographing what is there but his selection of angles and what he includes and excludes in the frame result in a careful composition that presents something that few people would have realised was there.

My overriding impression of his compositional style is one of balance. Image after image has balanced shapes and tones across the frame, spaces balance shapes as in the jigsaw in Tallahatchie County, or the car on the empty street in Southern Environs of Memphis. Shapes balance each other as in the dog drinking from a puddle in Algiers or the white man and the black man in Sumner and, in other cases, tone provides the balance such as in the low rise house in Tallahatchie County where the horizontal tones are nearly balanced in pairs.

At times this construction seems simple such as the grey door and blue flowers in Memphis, or the child’s coat in the dirty room in Near Jackson, or even the iconic tricycle in Memphis but often, as in the tricycle, the angle of view is key. Eggeston is on record as saying he was interested in unusual viewpoints and the tricycle is a good example of this idea in action with the child’s toy being made huge by the choice of angle.

So my first reaction can be summarised as careful, considered and balanced composition.

NK0_1563-eggleston-guideColour and Light

Eggleston did not accept the colours that were on offer for the amateur photographer who would use print film processed by machines, nor was he satisfied with the more niche offering to the serious amateur of Ektachrome slide film. He wanted his colours to be strong, powerful, dominant and saturated. He used dye transfer printing, previously the preserve of the advertising industry,  to give him this saturation.

As a result The Guide shows us prints with rich saturated colours, not often bright primary colours but more muted tones of brown, orange and ochre. There are, of course, exception such as the lady in a bright red and blue dress sitting on an equally bright yellow, orange and green garden seat but I think here he saw a the similarity of pattern and the contrast of colours as an integral part of the story he is telling. Overall these saturated colours and his regular use of strong contrasts such as in the empty white plastic containers set against the subdued greens and browns of the Black Bayou Plantation or the rusty tank in the same location make sure that colour is an important element of many of the images. I have never been to Mississippi but I sense that he is offering us an exaggerated palette but still a palette that represents the place. Polarised blue skies and bright green grass might seem out of place but pale, mid-day blue skies above a dusty landscape seem right.

Most of the collection is taken in natural light, and whilst a few are obviously captured with warm afternoon light or at early evening I sense that he is not especially concerned with picking the perfect time of day to capture the perfect light. This might even work against the grain of what he is doing; if every photo relied on the golden hour morning or night it might suggest that this place only existed at these times. If the shot presented itself when the sun was high and shadows were short that is when he took the shot. When there is warm light available he uses it to good effect, such as the boy in a red shirt in East Memphis or the sun light in the tree behind the woman in a white cardigan in Memphis. Indoors he uses a variety of styles, natural light from windows, the artificial house lights (giving a warm yellow orange glow) or flash. In the same way that he photographs what is there he seems happy to use the light that is there.

Subject and Narrative

Colour is important to Eggelston and is certainly not a incidental component of his images but, like his composition, colour is a means to an end. The most important component of his images is the subject. I have come to that conclusion more from reading interviews with him and seeing the BBC documentary. I believe that he set out to create art and that is why the composition and colour are fundamental to the images but his sympathetic treatment of  human subjects and his descriptive, documentary style when looking at landscape makes me believe that his is constantly putting into practice his theory of democratic photography. By treating every subject the same he makes every subject as important as his photos of his own family.

He wanted to document without comment and I believe that this is what he achieved but the lack of comment does not mean that there is a lack of narrative. It is just that he leaves the narrative to the image with just the occasional hint in the caption such as Near Extinct Wannalaw Planation which is one of my favourite images in the collection. The ramshackle house, derelict car, dirt road and watchful dog all set in a dull landscape under cloudy skies tells of a past and present with little future. Mostly we are left wondering about where the story ends but we know that we are seeing part of that story. Some images are unsettling such as the boy on the garage floor in Whitehaven or the elderly man with his gun in Morton and some ask more questions than they answer but many are warm images of friends and family.

William Eggelston took photographs of what was there, the sad, the ugly, the ordinary and the homely but, in doing so he documented a place at a moment in time so well that we have a sense of knowing it despite having less than 50 photographs upon which to visit it. His photographs were never casual and as a result they need more than a casual look to unravel but I feel that, by taking the time to look and try to see, I have learnt a lot about documentary photography.

My favourite piece in the film *(2) is when he talks about the c1976 exhibition that The Guide commemorates.  He says of the critics:

“They didn’t understand what they were looking at and it was their job to understand it.”



*(1) Eggleston, Wiliam. (2002) William Eggleston’s Guide, 2nd Edition, 2013 reprint, The Museum of Modern Art, New York.


*(3) O’Hagan, Sean. (2004) Out of the Ordinary, Guardian Newspaper. http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2004/jul/25/photography1


*(2) The Colourful Mr Eggleston, (2009) Directed by Jack Cocker and Rainer Holzemer and edited by Alan Yentob for the BBC’s Imagine programme, BBC Scotland http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0TdYoithgeI


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