The Rebel Who Revolutionised Photography
Untitled, 1970 – 4 (Dennis Hopper) by Mr William Eggleston. Photograph © Eggleston Artistic Trust. Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London
As an exhibition of his portraits is mounted at the National Portrait Gallery, we explore the pioneering vision of Mr William Eggleston.
“A picture is what it is,” Mr William Eggleston once said, and in the case of Mr Eggleston’s own pictures – super-saturated colour shots of rusty tricycles, light fixtures, car parks and freezers packed with food – the seemingly mundane is charged with a heightened mystery and unease. He’s perhaps the most influential photographer of the past half-century, and his surreal-banal aesthetic has inspired everyone from film directors Messrs David Lynch and Gus Van Sant to fellow photographers like Mr Juergen Teller, Ms Nan Goldin and Mr Martin Parr, and even musicians such as Primal Scream and Big Star.
Untitled, 1970 (self-portrait), by Mr William Eggleston. Photograph © Eggleston Artistic Trust. Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London
Now, Mr Eggleston is getting the blockbuster treatment, with the opening of a show of his portraits at London’s National Portrait Gallery. These are far from traditional character studies; whether they’re celebrities like Mr Dennis Hopper or members of Mr Eggleston’s own family, like his uncle Mr Adyn Schuyler Senior (pictured with his assistant, Mr Jasper Staples), they remain as enigmatic and disconcerting as the desolate diners and windswept bayous they’re often photographed in, like actors in a southern Gothic melodrama of Mr Eggleston’s own making.
Mr Eggleston is a maverick in many ways. Like his fellow artist-outlaw Mr William Burroughs, he’s a softly-spoken Southern gentleman (he was born in a grand house on a Mississippi cotton plantation in 1939) with a penchant for Savile Row suits and guns. Mr Bobby Gillespie of Primal Scream recalled meeting him in Memphis, when “he was wearing jodhpurs and leather boots, and walking about with a rifle and a bayonet”. Mr Eggleston hit on his technique in the early 1970s, while browsing through a commercial catalogue of perfume bottles and cigarette packets; his groundbreaking exhibition of colour work at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1976 was described by the New York Times as “the most hated show of the year”.
Untitled, 1969–70 (the artist's uncle, Ayden Schuyler Senior, with Jasper Staples, in Cassidy Bayou, Summer, Mississippi), by Mr William Eggleston. Photograph © Eggleston Artistic Trust. Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London
If it’s taken people a while to come round to Mr Eggleston’s work, it’s because they finally recognise a true individual – a hell-raiser committed to finding, as he once put it, “the beauty in the everyday”. The latter quality is exemplified in the NPG show, with its dreamy shots of redheaded Southern belles at soda counters, or good ol’ boys cradling firearms in vividly hued motel rooms. A self-portrait of Mr Eggleston in one such interior shows him fixing the camera with an intense stare. “I just wait until it appears,” he once said, when asked how he decided what to photograph, “which is often where I happen to be.”
William Eggleston Portraits is at the National Portrait Gallery, London from 21 July to 23 October, organised with support of the artist and the Eggleston Artistic Trust