Think of a William Eggleston photograph and it most likely will not feature any people. You most likely may recall simple slices of rural American life: a tangle of wires on a red ceiling, a child’s bike, a coke machine, old gas stations or simply a patch of wall. His work celebrated for the experimental use of colour and the way that that he sees complexity and beauty in the mundane.
Each image has a deceptive simplicity and his groundbreaking style soon led to the solo show at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1976, considered a pivotal moment in the recognition of colour photography as a contemporary art form. Democratically photographing whatever is in front of him he claims not to seek depth or narrative. What you see is what you get. “I wanted to make a picture that could stand on its own, regardless of what it was a picture of.”
Perhaps this is largely true but in a stunning new exhibition that has targeted the portraits, that up to now have perhaps seemed a less important part of his work, it actually turns out that quite often there is rather more to the story.
Gathering together a hundred works from throughout his career, we soon realise that portraits often feature friends, musicians, actors and his own family and relations. They provide a window in to his home life and the curators also reveal, often for the first time, the identities of many of the previously anonymous sitters.
In his earliest black and white images – we see a selection from between 1960 and 1965 – people were his primary subject. Seemly largely taken unawares, they are people going about their daily life. It seems however that for example one was of his housekeeper, another his mother on her bed.
Once we realise the identities of many of these people and that that Eggleston is not the disinterested, impartial observer that we know from his street scenes, we start to understand more about these his life, these people and their times.
An interest in the bars and nightclubs of Memphis brought about a stock of grainy documentary footage – shown here for the first time – and another surprising set of images. Entitled Nightclub Portraits these were taken with a bulky view camera, rather than his nimble Leica, and with the help of an assistant. Remarkably clear and colourful, formally posed shots that, other than the subjects, they look like they were taken yesterday.
There are plenty more gems here. A never before exhibited portrait of Dennis Hopper in his car is hung beside one of Eudora Welty (apparently executed in a matter of seconds).
Another previously unseen image is that of Joe Strummer, beer in hand, watched by a fan in a Clockwork Orange T shirt. This is a juxtaposition that could look like a casual accident. Not here though. The punk maverick and Kubrick’s dystopian nightmare are deliberately and deftly placed side by side by Eggleston’s pin-sharp vision.
A red haired girl spread on the grass, is executed perfectly with focus only on the face and the camera in her hand.
A supermarket worker is captured tidying trolleys, in golden light, shadow on wall and watched by a local shopper. A middle aged lady in a flowery dress swings on a garden seat adorned in equally gaudy fabric.
Eggleston is an artists so well known that perhaps we thought that we knew pretty much everything about him and his aesthetic. How wrong we were. This exhibition, with deep research and clever curation brings a significant understanding to one of the great photographers.
For further information, please visit: www.npg.org.uk
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