The Art of Being William Eggleston

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William Eggleston (B. 1939) Untitled, 1973

Born in Memphis on July 27, 1939, and raised in Sumner, Mississippi, Eggleston grew up eschewing the typical Southern boy’s penchant for hunting and sports, instead focusing his time and curiosities on art and music. He graduated from the Webb School, a boarding school in Bell Buckle, Tennessee, then attended Vanderbilt University for a year (he later also attended Delta State and Ole Miss) and acquired his first camera, a Canon rangefinder. Soon he got a Leica and was hooked. After seeing books like photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson’s The Decisive Moment and Walker Evans’ American Photographs, Eggleston decided to pursue photography professionally. 

Although in the mid-1960s virtually all acceptable art photography was shot in black and white, Eggleston, never one to adhere to the norm, began experimenting with color film and a processing medium known as dye-transfer, a rich color saturation technique that had previously been used primarily for advertisements and product design. By this time he was teaching via a fellowship at Harvard and had his first group of dye-transfer photographs published in his 1974 portfolio 14 Pictures.

It was the 1976 MOMA exhibit, however, that catapulted Eggleston into the upper echelons of the art world, garnering both critical praise and savage reviews, setting the tone for the rest of his career. Critics called it “the most hated show of the year,” deeming his work at once both boring and garish. It caused such an uproar, however, that many in the photography and art world stood up and took notice of the young photographer who baffled many with his images of everyday things like ovens, showers, road signs, naked light bulbs, and seemingly everyday living rooms. 

Critics called it "the most hated show of the year," deeming his work at once both boring and garish.

That same year, Rolling Stone commissioned Eggleston to photograph Jimmy Carter’s hometown of Plains, Georgia, on the eve of the presidential election. The project resulted in one of Eggleston’s most acclaimed limited-edition books of photographs, Election Eve, a two-volume series published in 1977 by movie producer Caldecott Chubb, heir to the Chubb insurance fortune. Typical of Eggleston’s unique and sometimes renegade vision, the book contained no photographs of the Carter family, but instead depicted beautifully haunting images of woods, ditches, gas station pumps, and decrepit shacks around the depressed Georgia countryside at the time. 

From that point on, Eggleston began to start taking his place as one of the planet’s most acclaimed, and most unconventional, photographers. He began photographing all over the world, from Kenya to Kyoto, China to Niagara Falls, and here in his hometown from Graceland to grocery stores. Eggleston has had solo and group exhibits just about everywhere, at prestigious venues such as the Barbican Art Gallery and Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Corcoran Art Gallery in Washington, D.C., the aforementioned Whitney Museum of American Art, the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, the Foundation Cartier in Paris, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and dozens of others. He has also photographed the sets of films, made films, and had films made about him. He has won dozens of awards and accolades along the way, including the Getty Images Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004.

Along the way, he has become almost as famous for his personal life as for his photographic genius. It’s never been a secret that William Eggleston has marched to the beat of a diabolically different drummer, with a penchant for guns, booze, chain smoking, mistresses, outlandish behavior, and not caring one way or another what anyone thinks about all that. For the most part, it has only added to his allure. 

William Eggleston (B. 1939) Untitled, 1970


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