Beauty and the banal: William Eggleston’s masterful elevation of the ordinary

View of Marcia Hare wearing a pink floral dress lying on grass holding a black Kodak camera during the day
On view at the National Portrait Gallery in London, ’Portraits’ encompasses 100 works by the photographer William Eggleston, including his first successful colour photograph, depicting a grocery clerk in his hometown of Memphis. Courtesy of Wilson Centre for Photography. Copyright Eggleston Artistic Trust
(Image credit: Copyright Eggleston Artistic Trust)

‘I’d assumed I could do in colour what I could do in black and white, and I got a swift, harsh lesson. All bones bared. But it had to be,’ the American photographer William Eggleston mused once, recalling his first successful colour photograph. ‘I had this new exposure system in mind of overexposing the film so all the colors would be there. The first frame, I remember, was a guy pushing grocery carts. Some kind of pimply, freckle-faced guy in the late sunlight.... And by God, it all worked.’

The picture in question is unadulterated Eggleston: unapologetically banal, yet utterly compelling in its divine rendering of colour and light. Currently on view at the National Portrait Gallery, the unnamed photograph (Eggleston has always shied away from titles) is part of a new exhibition opening today in London that encompasses some 100 works by the pioneer of modern colour photography.

Born in 1939 into a wealthy Southern family, Eggleston grew up on his family’s plantation farm along the Mississippi Delta (the show includes riveting portraits of Lucille Fleming, a long-time housekeeper for the family, as well as ‘house man’ Jasper Staples). In 1957 he acquired his first camera – a Canon Rangefinder – and was soon exposed to Henri Cartier­-Bresson’s The Decisive Moment and Walker Evans’s American Photographs, which most lucidly influenced his earlier work.

A selection of black-and-white portraits – intriguing in their own right – serves as a prelude to the snapshot-style colour photography that has become synonymous with Eggleston. More poignantly, it has been 40 years since the photographer’s 1976 MoMA show was universally panned by critics. The New York Times proclaimed it ‘the most hated show of the year’, while Hilton Kramer seethed, 'Perfectly banal... perfectly boring, certainly.’

If his pictures are ordinary (or so his critics protested), surely his subjects are anything but. Among them was TC Boring, an offbeat dentist with a flair for the florid (his house was the location of Eggleston’s seminal ‘red ceiling’ photograph). A casual nudist and drug addict, Boring was murdered in 1980 by an axe to the head before his home was set on fire with him in it. In one Polaroid, Boring is pictured tending to his garden, bare feet rooted into the earth. In another dye-transfer print, he stands alone in a graffiti-scrawled room, stark naked, scratching his head perplexed and awash in an unsettling cast of crimson. It’s an uncanny foreshadowing of the violent end Eggleston’s friend would meet.

Elsewhere, a tender moment is captured as Eggleston’s cousin Lesa Aldridge comforts a morose Karen Chatham, who had been rebuffed earlier that evening by Alex Chilton, the lead singer of cult Memphis band Big Star. (Aldrige would later be involved in a volatile relationship with Chilton himself, as well as lead an all-female punk band, The Klitz, with Chatham.) The scene reads like a Dutch Master painting, its hues quietly romantic and more delicate than Eggleston’s usual palette.

Naturally, Eggleston’s prodigious way of seeing drew evermore creative characters into his orbit: portraits of Dennis Hopper, Joe Strummer, Fred Dowell and Andy Warhol ‘Superstar’ Viva are all on show too, seamlessly knitted with images of his family, friends and strangers.

Eggleston’s photographs are vignettes; overtures to the dynastic chronicles, love triangles, melancholy and glee that unfurl from beyond his decisive moment. Perhaps this is why his portraits are so captivating in their sheer mundanity – his offhandedness is so curiously at odds with the intricate entanglements of the people he photographed. His firm refusal to title photographs make them all the more tantalising. ‘Whatever it is about pictures, photographs, it’s just about impossible to follow up with words,’ he once said. ‘They don’t have anything to do with each other.'

Hoarding tropes of Americana – from the Old South to cars, friends, family, backyards and suburbia – he catalogued them relentlessly and indiscriminately. Sometimes the most ordinary of things are the most beautiful. And Eggleston’s ability to capture them is extraordinary.

View of Marcia Hare wearing a pink floral dress lying on grass holding a black Kodak camera during the day

An ethereal 1975 portrait of dancer Marcia Hare – clutching a Kodak camera while laying back on the grass – is notable for its use of focus. Copyright Eggleston Artistic Trust

(Image credit: Copyright Eggleston Artistic Trust)

View of Devoe Money wearing a multicoloured dress, glasses and black shoes sitting on a floral sofa bed outside during the day

Devoe Money (pictured in this 1970 portrait) was distantly related to Eggleston on his father’s side. ’She was a swell, wonderful person,’ Eggleston recalls, ’very smart, too. She was not a rich lady. She didn’t inherit a lot, I remember she was active in the little theatre there in Jackson. But there’s no money in that.’ Copyright Eggleston Artistic Trust

(Image credit: Copyright Eggleston Artistic Trust)

View of Karen Chatham wearing a blue dress with white frills lying on a floral sofa. Lesa Aldridge is sitting close to her and is wearing a red and white patterned dress

Untitled1974, portrays Karen Chatham, left, with the artist’s cousin Lesa Aldridge, in Memphis, Tennessee. Courtesy of Wilson Centre for Photography. Copyright Eggleston Artistic Trust

(Image credit: Copyright Eggleston Artistic Trust)

View of a girl with long red hair standing at a food truck holding money during the day

Untitled, 1974, captured in Biloxi, Mississippi. Copyright Eggleston Artistic Trust

(Image credit: Copyright Eggleston Artistic Trust)

A black and white photo of a woman with shoulder length hair wearing a headband, pearls and a light coloured outfit. She is holding a glass of drink

A selection of Eggleston’s earlier black-and-white works serve as a prelude to his colour photography. Pictured: Untitled, 1960s. Copyright Eggleston Artistic Trust

(Image credit: Copyright Eggleston Artistic Trust)

View of Dane Layton in a red t-shirt with an image of a violin on the front at a night club

Untitled, 1973–4 (pictured, Dane Layton)from the series ’Night Club Portraits’. Copyright Eggleston Artistic Trust

(Image credit: Copyright Eggleston Artistic Trust)

View of a woman with long dark hair holding a bottle of Heineken at a night club. She is wearing earrings, a necklace and a green, white and yellow patterned sleeveless outfit. There is a man wearing a blue long sleeved top in the background

Untitled, 1973–4, from the series ’Night Club Portraits’. Copyright Eggleston Artistic Trust

(Image credit: Copyright Eggleston Artistic Trust)

View of Ayden Schuyler Senior in a black suit and a man dressed in black and white standing outside on leaf covered ground during the day. A car, trees and a body of water can also be seen

In Untitled, 1969–70, the artist’s uncle, Ayden Schuyler Senior, is pictured with the family’s ’house man’, Jasper Staples, in Cassidy Bayou, Mississippi. Copyright Eggleston Artistic Trust

(Image credit: Copyright Eggleston Artistic Trust)

View of Dennis Hopper wearing a cowboy hat and driving a car in the outback. There is another person in the passenger seat next to him

Untitled, 1970–4, shows Dennis Hopper driving in the outback. Copyright Eggleston Artistic Trust

(Image credit: Copyright Eggleston Artistic Trust)

View of a self-portrait of Eggleston wearing a white t-shirt in a dark room

Untitled, 1970, is a self-portrait of Eggleston. Copyright Eggleston Artistic Trust

(Image credit: Copyright Eggleston Artistic Trust)

View of Joe Strummer wearing a black and red hat and a black jacket during the day. He is holding a glass of drink and there is a young person in the background wearing a white t-shirt

This untitled photograph from c.1980 features the late Clash frontman Joe Strummer. Copyright Eggleston Artistic Trust

(Image credit: Copyright Eggleston Artistic Trust)

A black and white photo of a woman with a short bob wearing a light coloured hat and outfit standing outside a shop. She is holding a book in one hand

Untitled, 1960s. Copyright Eggleston Artistic Trust

(Image credit: Copyright Eggleston Artistic Trust)

INFORMATION

‘William Eggleston: Portraits’ is on view until 23 October. For more information, visit the National Portrait Gallery website (opens in new tab)

ADDRESS

National Portrait Gallery
St Martin’s Place
London, WC2H 0HE

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