William Eggleston: From Black and White to Color

February 7, 2010By Heidi EllisonArchive

The Eccentric Eye of
A Master of Color

Paris Update Eggleston From-Los-Alamos-Folio-1-Memphis,-1965 William-Eggleston

From Los Alamos Folio 1, Memphis (1965).
© William Eggleston. Courtesy Wilson Centre for Photography.

It is always interesting to take a look back at an artist’s first steps to understand how he (in this case) got to the point where he hit his stride. The exhibition “William Eggleston: From Black and White to Color,” at the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson, travels back to the 1960s and early ’70s, when Eggleston, the king of color photography and one of its first serious practitioners, was still using black and white and just starting to experiment with color.

Eggleston found inspiration for his early work in Cartier-Bresson’s book The Decisive Moment, but he wasn’t as adept as the master at capturing that happy conjunction of circumstances. The feeling in these early black-and-white images is more Hopperesque: the loneliness of the individual surrounded by the cold, hard empty spaces of modernity, as in

Paris Update Eggleston Sans-titre-1960-1965-(c)-William-Eggleston

“Untitled”(c. 1960-65). © William Eggleston. Courtesy Eggleston Artistic Trust.

this image of a couple sitting on a bench in an empty lobby, or one of a secretary looking lost amid the sterility of her office. The same feeling of alienation persists in photos with no human presence: a lonely Coca-Cola bottle sitting on a table in a lunchroom or an empty booth in a diner. Then there is the incongruity of a man in a business suit smoking a cigarette while standing next to an ironing board and a messy stovetop in a homey kitchen with lace curtains.

Eggleston just didn’t fit into the mold of the great “humanist” photographers like Cartier-Bresson, but in his black-and-white images, there are signs of the Eggleston to come. He seems less interested in people than in their surroundings and is already breaking all the photo-school rules and accepted practices of the time as he photographs eccentric subjects (e.g., the inside of an oven), crops his images oddly and occasionally makes grainy, blurry prints.

Hung in the midst of the moody black-and-white images in the exhibition, the color prints come as a welcome shock. They burst into Technicolor life, none more than his first color image, pictured above, of a teenage boy pushing a train of carts in a supermarket with golden light falling on his face and arms. Eggleston has finally found his own style in the brave use of color – and not just any color, but the saturated shades of a dye-transfer process more commonly used in advertising – at a time when color photography was scorned as not being “art” by black-and-white photographers and art critics.

He continued to break the rules in his color images, sometimes even inserting himself into the picture – in his reflection in a shop window in one photo and his shadow looming over a woman and her children in a pink car in another. In one picture here, he commits a major no-no, photographing a woman dressed in shades of green in front of a bush so that she appears to have a green Afro. In another, which focuses on a bare light bulb, he seems to be

Paris Update Eggleston Sans-titre-ca-1970-(c)-William-Eggleston

“Untitled” (c. 1970). © William Eggleston. Courtesy Eggleston Artistic Trust.

attracted like a moth to a flame by the blue of the ceiling and walls.

While there are a number of images worth seeing in the show, I must admit to being a teensy bit disappointed, having expected the brilliance of the Eggleston works displayed in an exhibition at the Fondation Cartier a couple of years ago. This is more of a show for devoted Eggleston fans who want to know everything about him and how he got his start.

Heidi Ellison

Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson: 2, impasse Lebouis, 75014 Paris. Métro: Gaîté. Tel.: 01 56 80 27 00. Open Tuesday, 1pm-6:30pm; Wednesday, 1pm-8:30pm; Saturday, 11am-6:45pm I, Sunday, 1pm-6:30pm. Admission: €7. Through December 21, 2014. www.henricartierbresson.org

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