There’s a hazy mist of nostalgia to the National Portrait Gallery’s new exhibition of the work of celebrated American photographer, William Eggleston. Whether it’s his images of Marcia Hare, basking in the sun on some grassy field, her pale skin and auburn hair glowing like some hippie version of a Titian beauty, or a group of black children playing by the side of the road, the vast expanse of the rural America landscape rolling away behind them, or his shots of disco-goers in the 1970s, resplendent in their garish prints and wide flared trousers.
These are beautiful, evocative photographs. But though Eggleston always counselled against reading too much into his work, there is some biting social and cultural observation in much of it too, such as the images of his white uncle with his black servant, or that of the perfectly coiffeured Tennessee housewife in her residential road, her clothes as prim and perfect as her hair, yet standing only metres from a very tightly wound coil of chains.
But none of this is deliberate or contrived. Eggleston is letting his America – largely the Deep South where he was born and raised – do the talking.
For those unfamiliar with Eggleston’s history and work, you could be forgiven for overlooking the technical innovation here. He embraced colour photography when many others remained sceptical. Or worse, downright dismissive. Colour photography was seen as cheap and nasty compared to the elegance of black and white.
Eggleston disagreed. And the result is a vast catalogue of iconic images of an ephemeral era.
But Eggleston went further than simply using colour film – he actively explored its potential too, developing and experimenting with dye techniques that were intensively manual, often limited the size of his prints, but transformed how the colours were represneted.
And the results were glorious blends of saturated hues and accentuated lighting, such as (for me, at least) the stand out image in the show of a young man collecting shopping trolleys at a local supermarket, the fading light of the late afternoon falling across his skin, as well as the famous image of Devoe Money, an elderly distant relative, couched out in her back garden, soaking up the evening rays on a swing with cushions in the most lurid of palettes.
The size of this, the first major exhibition of Eggleston’s work in the UK for over a decade, is impressive – there are over 100 photographs from across his career on display – but there has also been a great effort made to bring something new to the table.
We have a previously unseen portrait of The Clash frontman Joe Strummer, as well as a never-before exhibited photo of Dennis Hopper. Though you could be forgiven for not realising it’s him. Eggleston has taken the shot from the backseat of a car Hopper is driving across a desert, and what strikes you is the familiarity of the imagery, as if you’re watching a movie. Maybe even Easy Rider itself. It’s the Americana of the shot that grabs you, not its American star.
And certainly that’s what you feel, generally, about the show as your eyes wander across all these photos – that this is a collection of shots that capture America, rather than a collection of portraits, which is what the exhibition is pitched as.
Much like the lyrics of a Springsteen song, this is a collection that seems to romanticise and reflect the lives of ordinary Americans, rather than a collection of portraits. And in that lies the lure of these incredible photographs. What a wonderful opportunity to see so many shots from a great pioneer.
National Portrait Gallery, London to October 23, 2016
Admission £8 (concessions available)
- Untitled, 1965 (Memphis Tennessee) by William Eggleston, n.d Wilson Centre for Photography ©Eggleston Artistic Trust
- Untitled, c.1975 (Marcia Hare in Memphis Tennessee) by William Eggleston, c.1975 ©Eggleston Artistic Trust
- Untitled, 1969 – 70 (the artist’s uncle, Ayden Schuyler Senior, with Jasper Staples, in Cassidy Bayou, Sumner, Mississippi) by William Eggleston ©Eggleston Artistic Trust