William Eggleston

“You are not special. You’re not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You’re the same decaying organic matter as everything else. We’re all part of the same compost heap. We’re all singing, all dancing crap of the world.”

-Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

The Red Ceiling by William Eggleston

The Red Ceiling by William Eggleston

Perhaps more than any other photographer, William Eggleston is credited with legitimizing color photography in the art world.  Eggleston was certainly not the first or even among the earliest color photographers, but he was the first whose color work secured broad acceptance and support among the curators and critics that stand watch at the perimeter of the world of “fine art.”  Eggleston’s work has been described as “elevating the quotidian.“ (quote taken from the show at the Frist center in TN a few years back).  For those of you unfamiliar with that last term, it is a rather fancy and unusual way to say “everyday,” and is favored by art critics the world over.  Eggleston’s color work gained acceptance, at least in part, because it was the first serious work judged by the cognoscenti in which color was integral to the image, rather than an incidental addition. 

Eggleston’s subject-matter is primarily the American south, identifying scenes, people. or objects that others might ignore as worthy of more serious consideration.  Most of his strongest work features the use of the profoundly labor intensive and expensive dye-transfer process, which not only renders some of the richest colors of which a print is capable, but also invests both time and money in “elevating” the subject matter.  The very act of utilizing such a process is a statement of the investment the photographer has in these apparently mundane subjects.

Untitled (Horse) from Southern Suite, by William Eggleston 

Untitled (Horse) from Southern Suite, by William Eggleston 

However, for all of the complex theoretical underpinnings of Eggleston’s work, both my wife and I cannot help but feel that Eggleston is the spiritual Godfather of every teenager who took a picture of his or her feet and called it “art.”  This photography exists at an extreme end of a spectrum of unpretentiousness and deliberate artlessness, where the line between brilliance and everyone’s instagram selfies becomes awfully murky.  Take, for example, this image that my wife and I have taken to calling “underwhelming pony.”  (prints of which typically sell at auction for 5 figures)  Perhaps I can blame the same deficiencies of character that prevent me from enjoying dry sherries and goat cheeses, but I struggle to understand the significance of this image despite a reasonable comfort with the artist’s body of work and a respect for the method by which it was created.

I believe that the generalization of the Eggleston ideal described above has both negative and positive effects on photographers as a group.  Certainly, the democratization of subject matter has freed would-be photographers from a narrow band of acceptable subjects for artistic endeavor.  Artists like Eggleston have given license to photographers who would be artists to explore their own worlds, regardless of what those worlds are or the perspective the photographer chooses.  However, in light of our modern generation of people brought up on participation trophies and unconditional validation, it reinforces as sense of relativism: technique doesn’t matter, and all perspectives and subjects are equally valid.  I have seen this borne out time and again among both professionals and amateurs: photographers expecting and demanding praise for their images simply because it is their “unique vision.” 

For these reasons I find my relationship with Eggleston’s work to be an uneasy one.  I vacillate between respecting what I perceive to be the intellectual underpinnings of his oeuvre, and feeling compelled to point out the emperor’s nudity.  And more generally, I sometimes find myself struggling with the asceticism of the more extreme examples of the snapshot aesthetic.  While I generally favor simple, honest photographs free from extraneous gimmicks, these images are often aggressively Spartan and unadorned, deliberately eschewing any semblance of craftsmanship in favor of immediacy.  But while this lack of craft or technique may be viewed as ascetic in the way it strips down photographs to pure depictions of a subject, it paradoxically maintains a level of decadence and self-indulgence in the presumption of the photographer that he or she may confer significance almost by divine right, without any real effort or skill required.

So I struggle with the fact that while the logical intellectual conclusion of my photographic philosophy, at least in part, is represented in the work of Eggleston and his fellows, I cannot unreservedly endorse this manner of artistic extremism.  However, I have to wonder that few groups of images produce so much dynamic tension in my mind, and perhaps that has artistic value of its own.