‘The idea of the suffering artist has never appealed to me. Being here is suffering enough.’
There’s a fine exhibition of photographic portraits by William Eggleston running at the National Portrait Gallery in London (until 23 October).
Born in 1939 in Memphis, Tennessee, raised in a well-to-do household in Sumner, Mississippi, Eggleston was shy and laconic, guarded and private. Self-taught and self-sufficient, he developed an affinity for free spirits, local bourbon and antique guns. He dressed like a Southern gentleman and caroused like a rock musician.
Eggleston took up photography at university. From the mid ‘60s he experimented with colour, and in 1973 he embraced a dye transfer printing technique, which hitherto had been the realm of commercial magazines and advertising. As a result his colours are rich, vibrant, intoxicating. We are seduced by the vivid yellows and pinks, the deep reds and blues; the bold tones of manmade fibres, floral prints, formica and leatherette. They sing out above the flat umbers and olive greens of the enduring rural South.
‘I photograph democratically…I don't have any favourites. Every picture is equal but different.'
Eggleston’s style seems informal, casual even. By 1976 he was abandoning his viewfinder and shot as if firing a gun. He photographed ordinary people in the bar, at the diner, in the parking lot; regular folk at the counter, at the phone kiosk, on the travelator; waiting in the car, striding along the sidewalk, seated by the kerb. There’s a young woman with a Heineken, a businessman with a burger, a singer with a cigarette. We see the elderly lady on her garden chair, the office worker in his lunch hour, teenagers on a date. We see a lone old man sitting on the edge of a bed, with a drink, with a revolver.
Eggleston’s subjects look straight at us, through us and past us. They stand and stare; they sit and watch; they turn to one side. They seem lost in thought, alone, even though they’re with us.
It seems a world of doubt, regret, indecision and detachment. But maybe it’s nothing of the kind. We want to know the stories that attend the images; the befores and afters. But Eggleston denies us this narrative. He leaves his subjects untitled, unidentified, unknown.
'A picture is what it is, and I've never noticed that it helps to talk about them, or answer specific questions about them, much less volunteer information in words. It wouldn't make any sense to explain them. Kind of diminishes them…I mean, they're right there, whatever they are.’
Although by no means the first serious photographer to shoot in colour, Eggleston’s exhibition at New York’s MOMA in 1976 is widely recognised as a watershed moment for the genre. At the time there was fierce criticism of his work from a photographic establishment that was looking for meaning and message. The New York Times described it as ‘the worst show of the year.’ His choice of everyday subjects was felt to be banal, boring and bland. His informal, spontaneous style was labelled ‘snapshot chic.’
But these are the very factors that make Eggleston’s work compelling. There is a mystery in the mundane, a simplicity in the spontaneous, a beauty in the bland.
‘I am at war with the obvious.’
In the field of commercial creativity we should feel affinity for the ordinary and everyday. Ours is a world of small choices and regular habits. Eggleston teaches us that, if we look close enough, we will see, and if we think hard enough we will feel; that we should seek merely to amplify the truth, to intensify it with considered gaze and vibrant colour; that there’s no need to resort to excess and exaggeration, superheroes and superstars.
As for myself, I’ll take the bland and banal every time. Give me small and inconsequential rather than grand and meaningful. Give me repetition and routine rather than fireworks and fun. It’s the poetry of normal.
Last week I gave a little money to a woman outside Waitrose. With her cropped hair and harem pants, she seemed earnest and a little concerned. ‘Would you like a book about the structure of the universe?’ she asked. ‘No, thank you. I need a new packet of Tuc biscuits.’