Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Colourful World of William Eggleston

Art is man's constant effort to create for himself a different order of reality from that which is given to him

William Eggleston's exhibition at MOMA in 1976 is widely considered to be the tipping point in the eventual acceptance of colour photography as a legitimate artistic medium.

Inspired by the visual arts, he has since gone on to inspire a generation of artists with his colourful vivid and sometime uneasy depictions of the everyday.

Green Dress, 1970

His subject matter is familiar to us. We relate to the images but are unsettled as, through his camera, we now see the familiar through a new light, a new angle and in a new intensity of colour.

There exists a heightened sense of reality. The everyday qualities of the objects, people or landscapes are replaced with an unexpected and unsettling aura through unusual but balanced compositions and real but unnaturally saturated colours.

Eggleston’s photographs look like they were taken by a Martian who lost the ticket for his flight home and ended up working at a gun shop in a small town near Memphis

William Eggleston, from William Eggleston in the Real World

The 2005 documentary William Eggleston in the Real World shows us first hand how the artist probes and searches out his subjects; peering into shop windows, front gardens, roaming the streets and buildings as if he had lost something precious.  When found, the subject is photographed, once, and the haphazard but exhaustive search continues again.

I believe in taking one picture of one picture

Green Car, 1965

Colour is the defining characteristic of his work.  Through colour, the ‘pictures’ relate on a sensory and emotional level providing the transformative power to turn the banal and common into the surreal.  Without colour the unusual would revert to its common state.  If reproduced in back & white Eggleston believes that his images, except for purposes of identification, “might as well not be reproduced” at all.

The following is an exploration into the role colour plays in transforming the world we know in into this world that we thought we knew.  It is a journey, under a number of themed headings, through the colourful world of William Eggleston examining his relationship with colour, his influences and his own influence on contemporary visual arts.

To take a photograph is to align the head, the eye and the heart. It's a way of life


Any discussion relating to Eggleston and his use of colour has to include, or even start with, his discovery of the dye transfer process in 1972, a process exclusively used at that time for the commercial printing of magazines and advertisements.

That is what got me interested. I would look at these advertisements say in Vogue…and I kept thinking, 'I wonder what Eggleston would look like in this process?

Cigarette Advertisement, 1970s

It was a complex, expensive and time-consuming process that basically involved the separation of three color negatives, made by photographing the original negative with black & white film through three filters (red, green and blue). The separations (matrices) were in turn soaked in organic dyes of yellow, magenta and cyan and then meticulously aligned and rolled over specialist paper, transferring the dye to paper.

Two girls on couch, 1976 (separations)

Photographic colour prints were predominately produced at that time as a C-Print (chromogenic coupler print) producing more “faithful” and less dramatic results than that of the dye process. The dye process exaggerated the colour values of an image allowing a photographer to obtain higher saturation in nominated colour fields (e.g. red) without affecting the rest of the colours in the image.  It gave a new level of control only provided in recent times by the emergence of digital photography.

Eggleston now had a new lush set of paints allowing an unprecedented influence and control over his pictures.  He now had a medium capable of depicting the world he was seeing.

Green Window, 1993

The dye transfer process helped Eggleston inject the ordinary with a heightened level of colour, intensifying the atmosphere and tension in in the frame and dislocating the viewer form the real world being presented. 

Hot Sauce, 1980
Eggleston's work and career was now transformed.  Colour was now not just part of the picture but it was the picture.  A process that was  being utilised to best show off products for sale was now being used to to show vivid and visceral depictions of common everyday objects, landscapes and people.  

Peaches, 1973

As advertisements were presenting abstracted realities to its audiences so to was Eggleston and both used the dye transfer process to help achieve this abstraction.  A process used to seduce, entice and persuade was now being applied to the bland of the everyday.  It was this juxtaposition that in some way unsettled the viewer.  Eggleston used the seductive, enticing and persuasive colour dye process and applied it to common objects and in doing so made us think about the very nature of his subject matter.


It was also this abstraction of colour that turned what could be deemed photography into art. We were no longer seeing the world through the eyes of a photographer but through that of an artist with a new found medium.

I don’t think anything has the seductivity of the dyes…by the time you get into those dyes it doesn’t look at all like the scene, which in some cases is what you want

The vivid dyes defamiliarise the objects presented. We are provided a new intensifying filter of Eggleston to see the world through, rendering the ordinary strange.

You’re stepping into some kind of jagged world that seems like Eggleston’s World

Shoes under a bed, c. 1973