Color Photography Becomes Art

William Eggleston is called the “father of color photography” and is commonly given credit for cementing its recognition as a legitimate artistic medium in the late 1970s.

Eggleston’s work influenced generations of artists, among them Nan Goldin, Jeff Wall, David Lynch and Andreas Gursky. Previous to Eggleston—and since the invention of the photograph in the 1830s—art photography had been little black, white and grey squares one would see in museums, and color photography was almost strictly used for commercial work, even though in the United States it had been available to the public since the 1960s, and by 1980 color was so mainstream the market for black and white prints was almost nonexistent.

The watershed moment for Eggleston and color photography was the opening in 1976 of Eggleston’s solo show, “Color Photographs,” at The Museum of Modern Art. The exhibition—which was accompanied by the soon-to-become-classic catalogue, William Eggleston’s Guide—was the first time color photographs were ever shown at MoMA, then known and still understood as the “highest validating institution of modern art.”

Eggleston worked in relative isolation before 1969, when he made an appointment with MoMA photography curator John Szarkowski. Eggleston  dropped off his prints to be reviewed and when he came back a few days later Szarkowski was floored. He’d never seen anything like them. According to Szarkowski, Eggleston’s “work” when he first met him was a suitcase full of drugstore prints.

Eggleston was the first color photographer shown at MoMA not just because he shot in color but because of what he depicted and how he depicted it. Eggleston’s subjects were mundane, everyday, and trivial—and while this is so common today, due to the use of entirely expendable and ephemeral images via digital cameras and video—Eggleston was one of the first photographers to monumentalize everyday (local and even private) subjects and include them in the realm of photography. Eggleston’s photography was also seen to have a neutral gaze, and represent “democratically” the world around him. What was this world? The novelist Eudora Welty, in her introduction to Eggleston’s book, The Democratic Forest, explains his work as consisting of “old tyres, Dr. Pepper machines, discarded air conditioners, vending machines, empty and dirty Coca-Cola bottles, torn posters, power poles, and power wires, street barricades, one way signs, detour signs, No Parking signs, parking meters and palm trees crowding the same curb.” Others have seen a sense of uncertainty and peril in his photographs. The writer and designer Mark Holborn explains, “the normality of [his] subjects is deceptive, for behind [Eggleston’s] images there is a sense of lurking danger.”

Yet color—vivid, emotional color—was undeniably intrinsic to Eggleston’s images. Eggleston famously said that the subjects and content of his works were actually only pretexts for taking color photographs. Eggleston increased the intensity of color in his works through two techniques, the use of color transparency film as well as dye transfer printing, both which have been adopted in art and commercial photography ever since.

Read the next post in this series about one of the most iconic works of the 1980s, Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills.

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