WILLIAM EGGLESTON: “The Tender-Cruel Camera”

The choice of subject matter seemed to some critics to be totally indiscriminate, as though William Eggleston has applied no criteria at all.


William Eggleston: The Tender-Cruel Camera

By Thomas Weski

‘I don’t particularly like what’s around me.’

I said that could be a good reason to take pictures.

He said: ‘You know, that’s not a bad idea.’

Around the middle of the sixties, in the middle of the night, William Eggleston was standing in one of the first industrial photofinishing laboratories, watching hundreds of color photos being churned out of the developing machines on endless reels of paper. Countless such visits were to sharpen Eggleston’s awareness of the world of images and its amateurish, unpretentious treatment by the masses of people who had their color snaps developed and printed in this laboratory overnight. For Eggleston, this confrontation with visual mediocrity was an altogether exciting and unforgettable experience and was to become an important basis for his later work.

It was in fact a turning point, for from then on a radical change was to take place both in his photographic style and in the content of his work. Until then he had photographed in black and white, had obeyed the maxims of the ‘decisive moment’ and the perfect balance of composition as preached by the one photographer he had hitherto always looked up to, Henri Cartier-Bresson. During various visits to the shopping centers which were now springing up all over the country, Eggleston succeeding in combining color photography with ordinary, everyday impressions and, in so doing, defined the essential elements of the original approach to color photography in the twentieth century.

A couple of years later, Eggleston showed his color photographs to the influential director of the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. John Szarkowski immediately recognized the quality of Eggleston’s photography and was later quoted as saying that Eggleston was ‘a terrific artist who had learned to see in color’. Szarkowski’s curatorial concept–‘I think I took the risk of allowing photography to be itself’–embraced both ends of the medium. Besides reshowings and reappraisals of such classic exponents of photography such as Brassai, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Walker Evans, he also exhibited photographers who had hitherto been known only to experts and connoisseurs. In 1967, for example, Szarkowski exhibited Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand, and Lee Friedlander in a group exhibition entitled ‘New Documents’ and, later, in solo exhibitions. These three photographers represented the very opposite of what constituted his predecessor Edward Steichen’s exhibition policy. Steichen was committed primarily to the kind of photography which was distinguished by its strictness of composition, masterliness of execution and significance of content. It was precisely such photographic conventions, marked by a self-sufficiency which inevitably rigidifies into dogma, that Szarkowski countered with his own choice of contemporary photographers, and with William Eggleston as the only color photographer. These rebels of photography subscribed to the school of personal documentary. They threw traditional standards to the winds, no longer using photography as a documentary medium in the classic sense, but rather as a means of giving expression to their own personal, unconventional view of the world. ‘The seeming lack of ‘composition’, the apparent ‘grab-shot’ quality of many of their images is consistent with this search for what photography does best.’ These photographers considered that this move towards media-immanence and absolute subjectivity was best exemplified by Walker Evans, and developed it further: ‘…and William Eggleston’s apparently offhanded pictures of suburban Memphis were not imitations of Evans’ photography, but these artists derived from his example the courage to use the medium directly, to let its idiosynchrasies, its informalities, and its candor lead them to the distillation of their own private realities. All ackowledged his influence.’

As a time when photojournalism, with its reports on the war in Vietnam, student revolts and manned space travel, had reached its zenith prior to succumbing to the superiority of television as a reporting medium, this approach seemed to many to be a provocative refusal. Garry Winogrand, who was a good friend of Eggleston, went even further, declaring in one interview: ‘I don’t have anything to say in any picture…I photograph to find out what something will look like when photographed.’ This statement of Winogrands’ underpinned Szarkowski’s curatorial aim to liberate the medium from its restrictive rules and conventions: ‘Photography is a picture-making medium…It seems to this writer that the best photographers today are full of confidence, sure that the new open position will again be the site of adventure. They have learned that the art of photography is no more (or less) than photography done wonderful.’

Of course, this statement may also be understood as a criticism of a notion of photography which was still widely prevalent at that time, a notion which was reflected, for example, in the work of those ‘master photographers’ who, in their constant striving for technical perfection and their insistence on ‘previsualiaztion’, exercised the gentle tyranny of an all-dominating, almost totally self-contained fine art of photography. Serious photographers applied its rules to black-and-white photography, not least because they wished to differentiate themselves from the increasing use of color photography, both in related fields, such as journalism or advertising, and in the private sphere of the amateur photographer. They agreed with Walker Evans when he said that color in photography was ‘vulgar’. But they overlooked the fact that this great photographer also said that it was precisely color photography which was the ideal medium for depicting vulgar subject matter.

William Eggleston’s exhibition, plainly and simply entitled ‘Color Photographs’, opened at the Museum of Modern Art on May 25, 1976. Seventy-five photographs were selected for the exhibition from an essay of 375 color photographs taken by Eggleston in his own private milieu in and around Memphis between the years of 1969 and 1971. Eggleston’s exhibition was the first presentation of a color photographer’s work at this institution after an interval of more than ten years. The accompanying catalogue William Eggleston’s Guide was the museum’s first publication of color photography. And it was precisely for these reasons that the show received considerably more attention than would normally have been the case. One critic observed, around the end of 1976, that it had been the most hated exhibition of the year. Indeed, most of the reviews were negative–doubtless because this exhibition at last afforded Szarkowksi’s critics an opportunity to rail at his modernistic program. The reviews were hurtful. Nothing escaped criticism, neither the form, the content nor the execution. One critic remarked that these photographs ‘would be unacceptable if submitted by one of my basic photography students’. Another piece of damning criticism was Hilton Kramer’s review in The New York Times. He considered Eggleston’s photographs to be ‘perfectly banal…perfectly boring, certainly,’ and closed with the sentence: ‘The truth is, these pictures belong to the world of snapshot chic.’


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In order to be able to refute this ‘snapshot’ reproach and to acquire a better understanding of Eggleston’s approach, we must first take a step back into the history of photography. In 1971, Art in America published an interview with Walker Evans. When asked if photographs could be documentary as well as works of art, Evans replied ‘Documentary? That’s a very sophisticated and misleading word. And not really clear. You have to have a sophisticated ear to receive that word. The term should be documentary style.’ If we try to define William Eggleston’s photography with the same precision, we will realize that the critics of his ‘snapshot photography’ were likewise wide of the mark. Eggleston uses the snapshot style, deliberately developing specific patterns of images which seem familiar to us. The ingenuity behind the pictorial language of his photographs, which are definitely not snapshots, is not immediately clear, and we must take a closer look before we finally grasp it.

In his introductory essay in the exhibition catalog, Szarkowski observed that the composition of most of the pictures seemed to radiate from a central, circular core. Eggleston replied: ‘That was true, since the pictures were based compositionally on the Confederate flag.’ Although the photographer is here referring to the stereotype of the Southerner, his statement is basically correct. The main motifs of the photographs produced during that period are indeed positioned centrally. In this respect, his photographs bear a resemblance to the snapshots which William Eggleston had seen on his many nocturnal visits to the photofinishing laboratory, for the authors of these snapshots invariably placed the object of their interest in the middle of the picture. Unlike them, however, Eggleston uses the entire picture plane for his compositions, with the result that what, at first glance, appears to be an incidental picture of everyday American life does in fact go much deeper. The content of the photograph often embraces details and partial views of objects and people at the outer edges of the picture, giving additional meaning to the subject matter and creating interest on several different levels.

William Eggleston has been criticized for choosing the complicated and expensive dye-transfer technique for prints of such banal everyday objects. Eggleston uses this process for making prints from his transparencies and color photographs, as it permits him to control the colors individually, and also to exaggerate them according to his intended color emphasis. Originally developed for the production of opaque copy in advertising and magazine printing, this process utilizes water-soluble dyes which, compared with other color printing processes, are extremely durable–an extra bonus for collectors.

The use of the dye-transfer technique enables William Eggleston to add a psychological component to the atmosphere of his photographs. The American film theorist Stanley Cavell once remarked that the use of black-and-white material in photography and the cinema always emphasizes the finiteness of the action, that is to say, it points back to the past, whilst the use of color implies immediacy, even the possibility of a future. The psychology of perception which underlies Cavell’s statement, namely his observation that the view can gain emotional access to a photograph through the color, is corroborated by the fact that many of Eggleston’s photographs which are over thirty years old still look contemporary, they still seem to belong to the present day. Eggleston’s use of color in his photographs is unspectacular, incidental. He uses it so subtly that we are no longer aware of it as a separate component of the process by which we perceive an object visually. ‘What makes his photographs of nonevents especially meaningful is his use of color to convey the ‘feel’ of a particular place. He emphasizes hues that soak the scene or resonate in a critical way, virtually creating effects of sound, silence, smell, temperature, pressure–sensations that black-and-white photography has yet to evoke.’

Another reason for the shock which Eggleston’s seemingly unspectacular photography caused was the fact that it was not accompanied by any commentary. ‘Its subjects are, on the surface, the ordinary inhabitants and environs of suburban Memphis and Mississippi–friends, family, barbecues, back yards, a tricycle and the clutter of the mundane, for behind the images there is a sense of danger.’ The choice of subject matter seemed to some critics to be totally indiscriminate, as though William Eggleston has applied no criteria at all. ‘Eggleston’s photographs often seem to have been taken not by a photographer but by a motorized camera swinging around the photographer’s head on a string. Whatever happens to be in front of the lens when the shutter was tripped got photographed. Whatever was not, did not.’ But even this negatively meant criticism reveals a further important aspect of Eggleston’s work, namely his democratic approach to the subject matter. Eggleston speaks again and again of the ‘democratic camera’ which considers every object worthy of depiction. Naturally, this seemingly impersonal way of seeing things makes no distinction between ‘beautiful’ and ‘ugly’. In other words, William Eggleston does not operate with the usual visual hierarchies, but rather accepts those motifs which illustrate his concept correctly.

Eggleston often photographs his subject matter from unusual angles. The photograph of the tricycle or the picture of the mysteriously red glowing toilet were taken from a prone position on the ground, thus reconstituting the still uninhibited field of vision of a child looking at an object which, at play, might easily take on any number of different meanings. The perspective of photograph conveys this sense of unrestricted freedom and transports us momentarily back into our childhood, though entirely without nostalgia. And it is precisely this lack of nostalgia, the cold and aloof way the artist treats his subject matter, that shocks us. It is as though we were looking at a psychogram of American everyday life, and of American middle-class society in particular. The interplay of color, form and content in Eggleston’s photographs gives completely normal things or situations an additional level of meaning, turning them into visual metaphors of an alienated world. ‘There was also something disturbing suggested by these images, something ominous. The empty shower brought to mind a torture chamber; a blood-red ceiling exploded like a violent hallucination; the open black oven could have been a suicide’s last glimpse of the world.’ In retrospect, William Eggleston’s exhibition ‘Color Photographs’ at The Museum of Modern Art, and his accompanying publication represent nothing more and nothing less than a turning point in the history of photography. It was the point where color photography gained recognition as a medium of artistic expression.


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William Eggleston had already published his first portfolio of dye-transfer prints in 1974. ’14 Pictures’ has meanwhile been succeeded by a further ten portfolios and books with original prints, all of them being distillates of more comprehensive series of photographs. Just as William Eggleston’s Guide was meant to be not only an instruction manual for color photography but also a guide through Eggleston’s territory, all of his book and portfolios show the scenery of the American South. The only publication which is more specifically place-related is Graceland. For this project, Eggleston photographed Elvis Presley’s villa in Memphis, a masterpiece of bad taste. Eggleston depicts the house, which is now a museum, as the mausoleum of a man of extremely bizarre taste. His dye-transfer prints seem to have literally soaked up the synthetic colors of their subject matter. The viewer experiences the confusing sensation of being able to see himself a hundred times over in he countless mirrors that line the walls of the house, of sinking into the thick pile of carpets, and of suffocating in the strangely oppressive, lavishly decorated interiors. Here, too, William Eggleston has not merely documented his subject matter, but has used the medium of color photography to evoke the feel of a place. One can sense, behind this exterior of rapidly gained wealth, that nothing was at all well in the King’s realm.

After numerous partial publications of his work in magazines and catalogs, The Democratic Forest was published in 1989. It was the first monograph of his photographs since William Eggleston’s Guide in 1976. The Democratic Forest contained just over 150 illustrations selected from a series of 600 photographs which in turn had been filtered out from a collection of more than 10,000 images. The title of the book refers to the programmatic content of the series and, by the same token, to the photographer’s approach. Eggleston concentrates on the banalities of everyday culture and gives them a meaning, no matter how trivial they might be. The quality of the book’s images improves the more often we look at them–in much the same way as a piece of music cannot be fully appreciated until it has been listened to several times. The book reads like an account of one photographer’s imaginary journeys, beginning on his family’s farm in Mississippi, continuing through various American towns and cities, taking him as far as the Berlin Wall, and then back again. With just a few exceptions, the depicted scenes are deserted. They show rural and urban landscapes, buildings, interiors. Foliage, branches and trees, the symbols of nature, and telegraph poles and cars, the symbols of transport and communication, denote the increasing globalization of society and our environment. Despite the apparent facticity of the all-seeing camera, The Democratic Forest is to a certain extent autobiographical. The series of photographs which begins in William Eggleston’s own private sphere shows subjective, unusual views of many historical sites: the house of a Confederacy general, the building in Dallas whence the shots that killed Kennedy were fired, the Berlin Wall, and so on. The photographer uses his visits to, and his photographing of, these truly historical sites as an opportunity to provide us with images which, contrary to our expectations, enable us to relate emotionally to these places and to understand the meanings that dwell within them.

Many of these photographs were taken from a car. Although this is not immediately obvious to the view, the car-driver’s perspective contributes to our understanding of this series as a travelogue. The picture of a journey–often a means of self-discovery in literature–is here conveyed subliminally and serves as a metaphor of social change. The sequence of photographs in this book–and I am sure this would be even more noticeable if all 600 photographs could be shown in one large exhibition–is analogous to a musical composition. The overture, the introduction to the theme, is followed by the actual treatment of the theme and the variations upon it, whereupon, following a brief intermezzo, a new movement begins with full force, only to be succeeded very soon by another movement, and so on. The sum of the book’s individual parts is an all-embracing, ingeniously composed vision of the world. In The Democratic Forest, Eggleston sets out in search of his own personal past within the context of a longer history. But it is a search which has universal validity, a search which reaches beyond the individual. In stating the importance of human values, in questioning the meaning of tradition and history, in cautiously exploring the boundaries of his dealings with us and the rest of the world, William Eggleston has here created a photographic essay which, in terms of intelligence and complexity, brings Walker Evans’ tradition of American Photographs right up to the present day.

Whilst this publication fully justifies the claim that Eggleston is an international photographer, the photographs of his immediate environment seem to me to be the most convincing, for it is precisely in these photographs that William Eggleston develops a further quality. It is his ability to create a vision of the world using imagery from a geographical region–‘this is Eggleston country’–of surveyable size, a vision of the world which we can all understand irrespective of our nationality, a vision of the world which is universally valid. It is this same ability to create a microcosm of its own, coupled with an altogether romantic, though by no means sentimental view of reality, which Eggleston shares with the author William Faulkner, who likewise came from the American South.

William Eggleston used to work with a moderate wide-angle lens during his ‘Guide’ days. The combination of exaggerated perspective and the subjectively controlled coloration of his dye-transfer prints exactly suited his artistic purpose. More recently, however, Eggleston has mainly been using a standard lens in conjunction with the relatively low-cost production of normal prints from color negatives, so-called C-prints. Even in The Democratic Forest we cannot fail to notice that colors of his more recent photographs seem less aggressive, much warmer, and hence more conciliatory. As always, it is Eggleston’s use of light which lends his subject matter their virtually supernatural quality. Besides those photographs which are almost monochrome, photographs such as, for example, Eggleston’s already mentioned photograph of 1973 depicting a room with a ceiling virtually dripping with red, there are other color photographs which seem to have been taken with black-and-white film: enigmatic white medical eye-pads in a sinisterly black garbage bag, or pale, hideous, vampire-like faces against a dark background–at once repulsive and menacing.

Alongside such disturbing, yet subtly ironic, media-oriented conjuring tricks, Eggleston’s integration of dated, everyday objects in his other photographs cannot fail to capture our attention. In the only self-portrait of William Eggleston known to me, the photographer–only partially visible–is looking at an old fan, its shiny brass propeller corresponding with the warm yellow of a plastic bottle before him. Standing in front of an old, white enamel Coca-Cola sign, the fan harks back, through its antiquated form, to bygone days, but without any hint of sentimentality. Still linked to the present day through the presence of the photographer and other contemporary objects, such as the three differently colored ribbons and belts in the background, the fan becomes the symbol of a life and its contemplation. But even this perfectly off-balanced photograph leaves us with a feeling of unease and insecurity, for the yellow bottle contains highly flammable lighter fuel, and one cannot help feeling that Eggleston has set up the whole scene for an experiment fraught with consequences. In its ambivalence, this photograph exemplifies the photography of William Eggleston, whose tender-cruel camera defines the extremes within which his richness of ambiguity operates.

Paul Valery once wrote: ‘A comprehensible yet beautiful verse is beautiful by virtue of its incomprehensible content.’

William Eggleston once said: ‘I am at war with the obvious.’

– Thomas Weski







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