Tag Archives: snapshot aesthetic

William Eggleston and the snapshot aesthetic

A couple of days ago, I attended an OCA study visit at the National portrait Gallery, to see William Eggleston’s Portraits, along with about a dozen other students. It was timely, in view of my current Assignment 2 researches on Walker Evans, another photographer working at the same time in a similar style. A separate post on Evans is still in gestation, but will be published very soon.

Eggleston is a self-taught photographer, who began work around 1960. There is a fair representation of his early work, but for me the interesting images were the later colour ones. The exhibit includes 100 images, ranging from  photobooth size right up to A1+. The exhibition area was perhaps a little cramped and photography was no allowed, so I have no images of the space.

Eggleston was one of the first photographers to bring colour images into the mainstream of art photography. John Szarkowski’s promotion of his work at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York in the 1970s brought it to general attention, although much of the initial reception of his work was negative, with reviewers labelling it as banal and ordinary. However, they had failed to understand Eggleston’s concept of photographing the everyday in a democratic way, and not giving more importance to any particular element of what he saw. He says there are no pretensions towards photo-journalism; he just photographs what he sees, but has a knack of capturing composition, subject and colour that makes the ordinary interesting. Like Evans, he aims to photograph “the gaps in between everything else”.

Eggleston’s portraits are not his most famous works. Many of the images on show were taken unawares, and he is described as having a delicate, gently touch which captures something we can all relate to. I was particularly struck by the depth and tonality of the colours in the images, and his use of colour accents, particularly red and blue. Eggleston was influenced by abstract expressionism and this shows in his work. The colours themselves are very rooted in the fashions of the time of the images, and again, like Evans, one can date the images by the colour palettes he used.

I found the YouTube video below fascinating in the way it shows how Eggleston works. His images are rooted in the “Snapshot Aesthetic” (see below) and it is very clear that he embraces this idea totally. He is shown pottering round a nondescript area of his home town, literally taking single, fast snaps of whatever catches his eye. There is no sense of preparation about his method – he just responds to what he sees. “He discovers his subject within the myriad of possibilities.” As a result, the focus is often variable, and frequently emphasises odd parts of the image, but that is part of the charm of the work. At the same time, many of his works have an odd sense of foreboding and unreality, and there is often a fleeting impression of a narrative which the viewer cannot quite grasp.

Images that particularly struck me were the girl in the back of the car, for its strange composition, which forces the eye in towards the centre of the image, and the old lady on the swing seat, largely because of the sheer ugliness of the clashing colours. The lady seems to be lost within them all, but there is a strong sense of place and personality about it.

The Snapshot Aesthetic

This also appeared in the 1960s and was popular until the 1980s among art photographers. The linked article here by a student in New Zealand gives a good explanation. The fundamental basis for the aesthetic is that snapshots, with their unposed, casual feel have a sense of authentically representing the world which is absent from more formal photography. It harks back to the idea of photography being the only truthful art, capturing a moment of reality that has indisputably occurred, and something that has now been shown to be false.

Overall, the study day was interesting and it was good to meet some new students. I left after lunch and headed off to the Imperial War Museum to see Secret War and Edmund Clark’s War on Terror exhibitions. The latter was a multimedia work looking at the lives of some of the inmates who were incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay, and was very interesting.






Lynn Berger, “Snapshots, or: Visual Culture’s Clichés,” Photographies 4, no. 2 (2011): 175-190





Note on Stephen Shore’s ideas

This post was supposed to be about Walker Evans’ Subway series, but I got diverted by a couple of Vimeo clips on Stephen Shore talking about his series Uncommon Places and American Surfaces. The clips are linked below.


I was particularly struck by three of his ideas. The first is the snapshot aesthetic and how he emphasised that by not matting and framing his images at the time, and instead pasting them onto the bare wall. He also mentioned that he felt that smaller images forced the viewer to pay attention to them, if they are interested, and that this opened a channel of communication between photographer and viewer, along the axis of time. I am not entirely sure what he means about the axis of time, but the channel of communication part makes sense to me.

In the American Surfaces clip, he talks at length about the idea of the unmediated experience, which was about “taking a screenshot of his field of vision” at a particular moment, recording whatever was in front of him and took his interest. He mentioned how being in the “right frame of mind” allowed him to see something interesting in ordinary everyday objects.

This all sounds very much like the idea between mindful photography, something regular readers will know I am interested in. That also speaks of the right frame of mind, which is calm and open to whatever image presents itself, as opposed to seeking out things to photograph. I strongly suspect that Shore was an influence on the movement.

Assignment 1 – tutor feedback

Noted from feedback this morning. The rest will come by email, to include refs.

Chris liked the way the blog is laid out – clear and accessible. There were a couple of links missing, but I have already sorted those out.

He said he also liked the idea for my assignment, thinking it quirky and using the assignment to look at an idea (flyers at the Festival) rather than simply taking pictures of five unrelated people. H also thought the text added value to the images, providing an explanation and another layer to the story. As a tutor he is much more interested in the context and concept than technical brilliance. We briefly talked about his own work, and how he is interested in injecting some humour into his images. He says his work is as much about the places he photographs, and the process of understanding them. He was complimentary about my research and references too.

We then discussed the significance of the smile in portraits. See my previous post here. I said that I thought the smile was an important part of the mask the subjects were wearing, as they promoted their shows, but that I had a niggly feeling that the smiles gave a snapshot aesthetic, which had not been my intention. We discussed how almost any expression is a mask, and that it is practically impossible to get to the essence of a person. He referred to the deadpan aesthetic, and Thomas Ruff’s influence, which had come from architecture, and tried to remove subjectivity, treating people like buildings. However, as a photographer, one should have control over the shoot and if a mask of any type is used, that is fine as long as it was the intention and can be explained.

We also touched on the photographer/subject/viewer power relationships, and how the photographer has most of the power. I have mentioned this in another post. I said that in the assignment series, I felt that I had most of the power, and we agreed that in a more collaborative portrait sitting, such as the one I have just done for Exercise 2.1 (same ref as above) the sitter has more agency. One should never forget though that the photographer has a lot of power in any portrait, in the setting and selection process.

Chris finished by saying he thought my reflections were good and also my research. The message was carry on, you are doing fine.

Moving on to considerations for assignment 2, he said that this one was more about the place than the person, and what tied the person to the place. He will be sending me a bullet pointed written report, but suggested in the meantime that I look at the following work:

Philip Lorac diCordia – Heads, and The Hustlers

Alec Soth

Joel Sternfeld – Stranger Passing

Bettina von Zwehl

Joel Meyerowitz

Stephen Shore

I like the video tutorial and felt it was very useful to enable us to get to know something about each other. Chris said that he usually did tutorials by phone, but was happy to have a go at video feedback.

Edited to add: Chris was admirably quick at sending me my feedback and it can be found here:tutor-feedback-part-1