The Art of Being William Eggleston

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William Eggleston (B. 1939) Untitled, c. 1971-1974Fast forward to 2010, when Eggleston, with his dye-transfer printing technique nearing its end because Kodak had ceased making the necessary paper (he had only about a thousand sheets left), began investigating new ways of printing his famed photos and new ones yet to come. The result was a new approach that would allow Eggleston to print photographs that were larger than the 16 x 20-inch format that was the maximum size possible with the established dye-transfer process.

“We were out at my son William’s house in Los Angeles, and Joshua Holdeman from Christie’s was there,” Eggleston recalls, “and we were taping off these big rectangles with masking tape, and they were just getting bigger and bigger. I don’t know how we really came up with it, but we decided to experiment with printing a photograph at 44 by 60 inches in a new pigment print process, and we were blown away with the results.”

Eggleston’s son Winston, who manages the Eggleston Trust and was also at the Los Angeles gathering, says, “We weren’t really expecting anything but this was great. There was so much more detail that this was entirely different thing from the dye-transfer prints.”

“What surprised us so much,” the senior Eggleston says, “was at that size in this different process I didn’t even recognize some of my own images that I had seen so many times. It was a different animal, and it didn’t reflect on demeaning the dye transfer.”

Holdeman was also blown away and came up with the idea to have an auction at Christie’s of a collection of these new large-format photographs, in part to raise funds for the Eggleston Trust but, equally importantly, to reintroduce Eggleston to a new, younger crowd of contemporary-art collectors who would begin collecting them for the image itself and not for the way in which they were printed, as many old-school collectors do. 

Eggleston continues to inspire and influence generations of young photographers.

Eggleston says that it worked and that he feels the new audience views his photography more like art than just photography. “Yes, I am glad to admit that,” he says. “They care about the actual image. They are becoming seen less as photographs and more like paintings. People are treating them as paintings.”

Holdeman, Eggleston, and his two sons spent the next year or so deliberating which images to print in this new fashion for the Christie’s auction, deciding which ones lent themselves to the new printing process and which ones didn’t. They also placed a special emphasis on choosing some select photographs from the original 1976 MOMA exhibit, knowing those would likely bring the highest prices.

On March 12, 2012, after the collection had been on display at Christie’s for five days, Eggleston sat in a private room above the Christie’s auction floor alongside his longtime wife, Rosa, and watched as his photographs were snapped up quickly by bidders from all over the world for much higher prices than they had estimated they would bring. The photograph that brought the highest price was Eggleston’s “Untitled, 1970,” an image of a tricycle that was the cover photo for the exhibition guide from the 1976 MOMA show. It sold for $578,500, the highest price ever paid at auction for an Eggleston photograph.

“It was exciting because we had no idea what to expect,” says Winston Eggleston. “Down in the main auction room there were people bidding, and on the left side of the room there was a row of people manning a bank of telephones with people calling in bids from all over the world. The auctioneer was very good at keeping it going between bidders. I believe he was the guy who presided over the first auction of photographs at Sotheby’s.” 

“Well, I just sat there and watched,” recalls the photograher, never one to gush. “I wasn’t tabulating anything, or anything like that. It was good to have my whole family with me.”

“Christie’s is the best auction house in the world,” he continues. “I knew perfectly well this was the first time my photographs were escalated to this level. I’ve known it for so long I was really not impressed by it.” Then he thinks for a second and laughs, saying, “But looking back, I am.”

In Eggleston parlance, this means he was very happy. 

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