William Eggleston: Biography, Photography & Portraits

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Look around at familiar objects. Do you see potential for art? In this lesson, learn about American photographer William Eggleston. He became famous for taking color photographs of everyday life and portraits of average people. He captured details of the world around him and helped establish color photography as an art form.

Beginnings

William Eggleston (1939 - ) was born in Memphis, Tennessee and grew up in a small Mississippi town. His family was affluent, but his parents were often away (his father was in the military), and his grandparents eventually sent him to boarding school, which he hated. As a young man he struggled to figure out what he wanted to do with his life. He attended Vanderbuilt University, Delta State College and the University of Mississippi but never got a degree.

In the late 1950s a friend suggested he buy a camera and it changed his life. Eggleston took to photography and began experimenting by taking many shots around his home, first with black and white film. He was inspired by works he saw in books by Walker Evans, a photographer who traveled the United States during the Great Depression capturing stark images of people impacted by hardship, and Henri Carter-Bresson, a French photojournalist who specialized in street photography.

Championing color photography

In 1964, Eggleston began to work with color film, experimenting with unusual perspectives and angles. He was ahead of his time -- today, we take the limitless possibilities of color photography for granted, but this wasn't always the case. It's important to understand how color photography was thought of in the early 1960s. It was a hobby, the domain of vacation Polaroid images and snapshots. Serious photographers did not use it, and the art world didn't consider it Art.

In early 1970s, Eggleston began printing his images using a dye-transfer process. This kind of print involved three separate negatives for the primary colors of cyan, magenta and yellow. Each negative had to be prepared carefully and the print was created by aligning all three on a single sheet of high quality paper and printing them. Dye transfer printing was expensive because it was time consuming and had to be done by hand. But it produced vivid, saturated colors (as bright as they can be relative to tone and hue) unlike anything in normal color photography.

Eggleston's friends say he was quirky and could be cocky. Perhaps those personality traits served him well in weathering initial reaction to his work. In 1976, John Szarkowski, a curator (a museum employee who prepares exhibits and organizes collections) at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City arranged for a solo exhibit of Eggleston's work at MoMA. It was the first ever for an individual photographer working in color. The critics were not kind and many hated the show. The New York Times called it the ' . . . most hated exhibition of the year.' Others called it boring, banal, and uninspiring. Luckily, Eggleston had strong belief in his work and didn't let the harsh words get to him. He continued to follow his own path.

The Work

Eggleston took pictures of the mundane. Much of his early work was done in the Deep South, including his hometown of Memphis. He was democratic in subject matter, shooting light bulbs, park benches, faded advertising signs and broken down cars. He has said he pursued color because he thought it would be challenging. Generations of photographers used black and while film and so concentrated on certain elements, like stark light and shadow, or capturing the varied shades of grey. Color presented new challenges, with many more subtle variables in shades and hues. Eggleston had an eye for compositing an image with attention to the impact of color and he used it in capturing moments of everyday life.

Image A is one of his most famous photographs, a single lightbulb in a bare fixture against a blood-red ceiling. Look carefully to see where your eye takes you.

Image A: Greenwood, Mississippi, 1973
Greenwood, Mississippi, 1973

The image isn't of a whole room. It's just the bulb in a bare socket, taken at an unusual angle. The exposed wires create strong linear framing devices and break through the red field, anchoring the composition.

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