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.