William Eggleston, USA full color

In 1976, an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York turned upside down all the conventions that dictated, until then, what artistic photography should be.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
16 November 2023 Thursday 09:31
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William Eggleston, USA full color

In 1976, an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York turned upside down all the conventions that dictated, until then, what artistic photography should be. For their promoter, John Szarkowski, director of MoMA's Department of Photography for almost three decades, the snapshots of the guest artist, William Eggleston, were perfect. “Perfect? Perfectly banal, perhaps. Perfectly boring, of course.” However, this was how disdainful was the reception from Hilton Kramer, a critic for the New York Times. The art world of the time was polarized between staunch enthusiasts and angry detractors of Eggleston. Because? What was so fascinating about him and why did they cause so much irritation at the same time?

To begin with, for the chosen topics. A child's tricycle, the inside of a freezer, vending machines, old shoes, cans rusting next to a puddle of mud, rear-view mirrors, lonely gas stations, traffic signs, grocery stores... Eggleston directs his objective and, therefore, our attention to subjects that are no longer everyday, but even anodyne, profoundly anti-artistic in the eyes of his contemporaries. And he does it in silence, a radical silence, refusing to give individual titles to his snapshots.

In Austria we still remember the anecdote of a photography conference, held in Graz in 1986, in which Eggleston projected some slides from his series “The Democratic Forest” without saying a single word. He prefers that the public access his work with their own eyes, without clarifications, without filter.

The other big change was the color. There is no agreement on whether Eggleston was the first photographer to whom MoMA dedicated a monographic exhibition entirely in color, but no one doubts that his was the most influential in this regard. At a time when color film was considered a minor tool, only suitable for domestic or commercial snapshots, Eggleston elevated it to an artistic medium and forever renounced the cult of black and white.

Born in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1939, into a family of cotton landowners, Eggleston spent his youth in a South that, precisely, struggled to stop seeing the world in black and white, at the cost, still, of blood. and tears, in the midst of the African American collective's struggle for their civil rights. He studied at several universities without graduating from any, which did not prevent him from teaching at Harvard between 1973 and 1974.

At that time he discovered the technique of developing dye transfer (dye-transfer), a system for printing photographic copies in three inks, similar to screen printing, but little used until then. The effect on the paper was spectacular: vivid, saturated colors that allowed almost painterly images to be created. Eggleston had already been experimenting with color photography since 1965, but from then on, he married it, joining other pioneers such as Christenberry, Shore, Meyerowitz and Pérez Siquier.

William Eggleston's desolate urban landscapes and lonely interiors refer to the photorealist paintings of Edward Hopper. His choice of trivial and colorful themes is not exempt from the influence of Andy Warhol, whose circle he entered in the seventies, eventually maintaining a relationship with the actress Viva, muse of pop art. Even Alfred Hitchcock's films had a similar treatment of color. Still, Eggleston's snapshots raised blisters. What had been allowed, for a long time, in painting was anathema in photography.

A third reason explains the controversy that his works caused, perhaps more important than the choice of apparently insubstantial scenes or the intrusion of color film in museums and galleries consecrated, until then, to black and white. Eggleston's photographs are studiously sloppy. They invite you to look at them twice to make sure they are not the work of an amateur.

This is due to what many critics call Eggleston's democratic outlook. It is not an ideological concept, but an aesthetic one, although its effects can be ironic, ambiguous or even critical. Eggleston perceives the world as a whole without hierarchies between figure and background, where the accessory can be the protagonist. Hence his fragmented frames and his atypical compositions.

The photographer explained it this way: “I fear that there are more people than I imagine who are unable to go beyond appreciating an image that is a rectangle with an object in the middle, an object that they can identify. What surrounds the object does not matter to them, as long as nothing interferes with the object itself, located right in the middle.” Eggleston's gaze doesn't work like that, and neither does his camera.

As if reality were an abstract painting, the photographer captures in it relationships between lines, colors and shapes, which can occur between objects and human beings alike. The blue of the sea and the sky dialogues with the blue of the hood of a car. A ray of light can cover a soda bottle with a mystical aura. The stern gesture of an old woman contradicts the crazy joy of the multicolored wall that surrounds her. Two robust brick buildings, in tension with the verticality of light poles and a human figure, combine perfectly when a cream-colored sedan enters the frame, suddenly coordinated with two signs and a strip of paint.

You can have a nice chrome trunk in front of you and frame the image by placing the garbage that accumulates underneath in the center. The resulting image (the one that opens this article) is not an error, but a change of perspective. Everything counts, everything is equally important.

With “William Eggleston. The mystery of the everyday”, until January 28, Fundación MAPFRE transports us from the KBr Photography Center in Barcelona to the south of the Mississippi River in the sixties or Berlin in the eighties. Decadent and colorful urban or rural landscapes, but always evocative.