William Eggleston ‘Portraits’ - Photo Book

On a trip to Cologne, I spotted this German edition of Eggleston’s Portraits. With a soft spot for 60’s and 70’s colour palettes and a fascination for eerie, cinematic scenes of retro American life, I could not resist picking up a copy. The book, which accompanied a major exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery (London), provides a unique window on the artist’s life in his home town of Memphis, Tennessee, and the people he encountered.

The pages feature friends, musicians, actors, artists and strangers, as well as rarely seen images of Eggleston’s own relations, revealing for the first time, the identities of many sitters who have until now remained anonymous. In addition, this volume includes an essay and chronology, plus an interview with Eggleston and his close family members that gives new insights into his images and artistic process. 

  • Pages: 184
  • Place: Zürich
  • Year: 2016
  • Publisher: Scheidegger & Spiess
  • Size: 28 x 29 cm (approx.)

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About the artist:

Self-taught American photographer William Eggleston (b. 1939) is one of the pioneers of colour photography. Although he was already interested in visual arts as a boy, and in observing the world around him, Eggleston did not take any photographs until he started university, after a friend —who recognised his artistic inclinations as well as his fascination with mechanics— encouraged him to buy a camera.

Exposure to the vernacular style of Walker Evans and Robert Frank, the compositions of Henri Cartier-Bresson, as well as the realist impressionism of painters such as Edward Hopper, influenced his earliest work, which he produced in black and white. In the early 1970’s, he began experimenting with a dye-transfer process, a practice which allowed him to control the colours of his images and thereby heighten their effect. 

Eggleston’s straightforward depictions of everyday objects and scenes —primarily set in the American South— were noted for their vivid, punchy colours, precise composition, and evocative allure. The intensely saturated hues and striking perspectives imbued a dreamlike quality to the seemingly mundane subjects. However, his work did not get the approval of all critics at first, as it did not reflect the prevailing opinion of that time: that colour photography was more often associated with commercial advertising work and amateur snapshots, and had rarely been appreciated as fine art.  

Eggleston demonstrated that the photographer is more important than the subject. Quite plainly, his work is a window into the American South, made up of freeway signs, gas stations, derelict shop fronts and logos, muscle cars, rusted trucks, and more intimate scenes of domesticity depicted by diner tables and condiments. There are no heroics in his images, no political agendas hidden in the details. Eggleston calls his approach “photographing democratically” — wherein all subjects and every element can be of interest, carrying equal importance.

The now 80-year-old, has remained insistent on a formal way of looking through his lens, more preoccupied with structure and composition than the people or objects he photographs. He does not fix or stage his scenes. He adjusts to whatever grabs his attention, and in doing so cuts out a little bit of reality transforming it into a work of art giving it his unique individual perspective. Eggleston’s body of work is one of the most significant influences on American visual culture today, cited by photographers and filmmakers including Stephen Shore, Nan Goldin, Martin Parr, Alec Soth and Alex Prager to name a few. 

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