Photographing the Mundane
Artists see the world through different eyes to most people; they see the beauty in things that may be considered boring or mundane, and there are no photographers who capture this beauty as well as William Eggleston. Eggleston is a pioneering photographer and is credited with introducing colour to art photography in the late 1960s. To understand how avant-garde this was, it must be acknowledged that most art photography at the time was shot in black and white, and colour was considered to be ugly; no serious photographer would photograph in colour.
The reason behind art photographers shooting in black and white is summed up best by John Szarkowski, writing in the introduction to the book "William Eggleston's Guide."
He stated, "For the photographer who demanded formal rigor from his pictures, color was an enormous complication of a problem already cruelly difficult. And not merely a complication, for the new medium meant that the syntax the photographer had learned - the pattern of his educated intuitions - was perhaps worse than useless, for it led him toward the discovery of black-and-white photographs. Most serious photographers, after a period of frustrating experimentation, decided that since black and white had been good enough for David Octavius Hill, Brady, and Stieglitz, it was good enough for them. Professionals used color when they were paid to, doing their very best, without quite knowing what they meant by that."
Below is a photograph by Eggleston, taken before he started shooting in colour.
Eggleston was born in Memphis, Tennessee, and it is here that he has done the majority of his work. According to his wife Rosa, when he was first getting started in photography he told his friend that in Memphis everything was ugly and he didn't know what to photograph; his friend responded "well, photograph the ugly stuff." So this is exactly what he did. He began photographing otherwise unremarkable subjects yet achieving remarkable results.
He has been said to photograph democratically, where he treats everything he sees equally and produces pictures out of nothing.
His subject matter could be described as banal, boring, mundane and everyday, however he shoots it with such beauty, and what at first seems simple turns out to show quite a complex message where nothing in the frame can be taken for granted. His wife has said, “One thing that I will never forget in my mind what Bill did say to me earlier on when he was talking to me, ‘Now you must not take anything for granted when you are looking at a picture. Never do that. Every single little tiny space on that page works and counts.”
Eggleston has gone on to achieve great recognition, however, in the beginning of his career he had a show at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City and one art critic deemed it "the most hated exhibition of the year." There were a lot of negative reviews by critics who simply did not get what it was he was doing. Another critic stated that it was "totally boring and perfectly banal" which is ironically the intention of the exhibition, and something that he went on to become recognised for.
In the documentary "William Eggleston-Imagine," he said in response to his critics at his MoMA show, "“I think it was wonderful having a first major show at MOMA, of all places. It got tremendous recognition, great amount of it—-negative. I really felt sorry for them, because it was so obvious –-it was like they had the wrong time. They didn’t understand what they were looking at. And their job was to understand it. Modern art, it is the museum of modern art. And, they wrote pretty stupid things. Then it became known all over the world, so, the critics who wrote all that stuff later apologized [laughed] that they were wrong.”
Eggleston is truly great at what he does and his photographs are a joy to look at. What might be considered as mundane by some, his images transport us to a time where we are stuck in the moment that each photograph was taken. Despite living in an "ugly & boring" place, he has transformed it through his photography, and he is truly a master of his art.
To conclude, here is a great quote by Eudora Wetley that perfectly sums up the work of Eggleston, "The extraordinary, compelling, honest, beautiful and unsparing photographs all have to do with the quality of our lives in the ongoing world: they succeed in showing us the grain of the present, like the cross-section of a tree. The photographs have cut it straight through the center. They focus on the mundane world. But no subject is fuller of implications than the mundane world!”
All images are © Eggleston Artist Trust. All rights reserved.
You can see more of his work at the Eggleston Artist Trust website.