Book: William Eggleston’s Guide

I’ve just started on section 3: A Colour Vision and so it’s a good time to finally take a proper look at an iconic photobook that I bought some months ago and have been saving up until it was relevant to my studies: William Eggleston’s Guide (1976).

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William Eggleston (b. 1939) – and in particular his mid-1970s patronage by the Museum of Modern Arts’ John Szarkowski that culminated in this book – is generally credited with legitimising the use of colour in art photography. Whether Eggleston’s work can be classed as documentary photography is open to interpretation: he documents the banalities of modern life, particularly American life. There’s no social documentary element to his work, it’s simply chronicling.

My initial impression of the book was similar to my initial readings of The Americans and The Last Resort: underwhelmed; just couldn’t see what the big deal was.

My second impression (of all three books) was borne out of my realisation that I must keep in mind how much of a departure this was from the norms of the time, and try to put myself in the shoes of a viewer contemporary to the time of publication – once one imagines the prevailing context it comes across just how much this work would carry ‘the shock of the new’. So my sense was of an artist pushing forward the medium, even if I still couldn’t find much to love in the images themselves.

My third, and lasting impression, is the most interesting one, and so I will go into this in a little more detail.

Not about the colour

I find Eggleston’s reputation for bringing colour to art photography a little overworked. For a start, he was lucky to have been supported by Szarkowski and get his first major solo show at MoMA, with all the attendant publicity. He certainly wasn’t the only photographer working in colour – for example, Saul Leiter (one of my favourite photographers) was doing so from the 1950s, just with less publicity.

More interesting to me though is how the colours seem to constitute only a minor part of his artistic vision – it’s almost incidental in many of the pictures in Guide. Leiter, by comparison, made photos that are almost entirely of colours, with subject matter pretty incidental. Leiter used colour like a painter; Eggleston generally used colour in a much more subtle way, real rather than exaggerated, an accent for key details.

It’s a shame that Eggleston’s most famous image is the one of the blood-red ceiling (not in Guide) as this helped to cement his reputation as the colour-meister, yet it really isn’t typical of his work. That’s an image where (as I described above for Leiter) colour is the subject. In the vast majority of the photographs in Guide, Eggleston shows a mastery of using colour without it being overbearing.

Suburban inertia

Setting aside the distraction of the colour reputation, I sat down with the book to really look at the images and identify what I saw in them.

The course notes talk abut the qualities of dislocation and alienation in Eggleston’s work (course notes: 62). What I saw was slightly different. The overriding sense I got was of being very static, rooted, almost trapped. A stillness, an inertia that verged on claustrophobia.

Two things contributed to this: first, composition choices. In this set he used a discernible style of central placement of subject, at odds with the general ‘rule of thirds’ advice that many photographers consciously or subconsciously follow. Central positioning is normally avoided as it makes the image look too static. I believe Eggleston knew this – in the introductory essay Szarkowski quotes Eggleston as saying “the pictures were based compositionally on the confederate flag” (Szarkowski 2002: 11) – and chose to make the images look static.

Another formal element that I saw recurring as a motif was the circle – it’s everywhere once your eye is tuned into it. The idea of being stuck in the middle, going round in circles comes across in many of the images.

Secondly, the subject matter in many cases overtly or implicitly references being stuck in a place.

A plane is pictured, but it’s grounded. A woman sits to stare at the camera lens, with a thick chain wrapped around the pole to her side. A pool is shot from outside, through a wire fence. A miniature house is shown in the grounds of a real house, appearing to shrink around the occupant. There are various interiors.

Most tellingly for me, the famous tricycle shot used for the cover can be read as a youthful desire to leave, but with added pathos of the background depicting the grownup means of transport resolutely parked under, almost in, the suburban home. To me this image whispers “you’ll never leave…“.

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So the whole set reads to me as a statement about staying in the one place. Suburban inertia. It carries a melancholy air rather than an angry one, though. Maybe Eggleston liked staying in the same place.

The colour does form part of this mood. The banality of the scenes is not detached from the viewer via the artistic construct of black and white, it’s rooted in reality by the deceptively vernacular look and feel.

I read around a little on Eggleston, in particular Guide, and found no other review that read his work in this way – maybe everyone was distracted by the colour and missed a deeper reading of the accumulated mood evoked by the set. Or maybe this is an entirely personal interpretation. Who knows. If we believe Barthes, my version is as good as anyone’s, even Eggleston’s own…

Sources

Eggleston, W. and Szarkowski, J. (2002) William Eggleston’s Guide. 2nd ed. New York: Museum of Modern Art.

Imagine: The Colourful Mr Eggleston https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3jZ_HkaTXh8 (accessed 10/06/2016)

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