William Eggleston: The No Muss, No Fuss Master of Color Photography

Mar 18, 2013 5:11PM

"I want to make a picture that could stand on its own," William Eggleston once noted, "regardless of what it was a picture of." In that regard, Eggleston references the ideas of Henri Cartier-Bresson, who has been cited as one of his major influences. In fact, John Szarkowski, a friend of Eggleston, once said "The decisive moment was a decisive influence on him." Eggleston seeks to make a complete picture not by the subject matter but rather by capturing the balance of elements that resides in life. For Cartier-Bresson this balance was captured in an instant of movement; for Eggleston the pictorial elements are poised in the mundane.

"I don’t have a burning desire to go out and document anything. It just happens when it happens. It’s not a conscious effort, nor is it a struggle. Wouldn’t do it if it was." - William Eggleston

Eggleston turned his lens on his environment, noting: "The way I have always looked at it is the world is in color. And there’s nothing we can do about that." Thereby, Eggleston contemporized the modernist view, by introducing color into the cannon of photographic composition and thus expanding upon Henri Cartier-Bresson’s idea that "In a photograph, composition is the result of a simultaneous coalition, the organic coordination of elements seen by the eye." Indeed, it is no surprise that Eggleston was the first photographer to work in color to be selected for a solo show under the venerable eye of John Szarkowski at The Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1976. 

In Untitled (Biloxi, Mississippi), 1972, Eggleston’s lens is not preoccupied with the facial features of his subject, an unexpected decision in the realm of portrait photography, but rather with the cascading of her lush, bright red hair. The resulting image becomes akin to the powerful brushstroke by such American Color Field School pioneers as Morris Louis or Helen Frankenthaler, who lent dominance to color over form and subject. Likewise, in Untitled (Near Minter City and Glendora, Mississippi), 1970, Eggleston presents viewers with a disarming scene that calls for nothing but a quiet, objective meditation on the vernacular. The absence of drama and the insistence on employing a non-judgmental lens gives way to a democratic approach in viewing the work, where the different compositional elements including color, are granted equal weight in their aesthetic contributions.

Additional images: Untitled (Biloxi, Mississippi), 1972 and Untitled (Near Minter City and Glendora, Mississippi), 1970

The exhibition At War with the Obvious: Photographs by William Eggleston is on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.