Art & Photography

William Eggleston: The Portraits

As an exhibition of portraits by US photographer William Eggleston opens in London, curator Phillip Prodger explains why his work is both pioneering and unashamedly democratic

“It has been 40 years exactly since the Museum of Modern Art staged their infamous exhibition ‘William Eggleston Photographs’ in New York. At the time, Eggleston’s work was widely reviled. People felt that colour photography was inappropriate for making fine art pictures, and it was felt that Eggleston’s complex and usubtle compositions were too ‘snap shot’. Regardless of what he is photographing, Eggleston’s palette is unmistakable: vivid, sumptuous, and evocative. As beautiful and moving as colour can be in his work, you can also think of it as another tool in his compositional arsenal. But colour gives him the ability to take risks, graphically, that might not work in black and white,and look glorious when anchored with an artfully placed splash of colour.

“Eggleston is someone who has always tried to maintain emotional detachment in his work, photographing landscapes and inanimate objects with the same attention he would apply to people. He does not believe a photograph is a ‘window on the soul’ as we so often have it, nor does he think a viewer can ever truly understand a photographer’s thoughts and feelings from the pictures they make. Instead, he photographs ‘democratically’, which is to say, he gives even the smallest observations equal weight. His usual method is to capture people going about their business unawares, often performing ordinary tasks like eating in a restaurant or pumping petrol at a filling station. He photographs everyone the same, whether they are a celebrity, a member of his family, or a stranger.”

William Eggleston Portraits runs at London’s National Portrait Gallery until 23 Oct 2016