Democracy Before The Digital Age: The Legacy of William Eggleston

William Eggleston, Untitled, c. 1973-1978. © Eggleston Artistic Trust. Image courtesy of Eggleston Artistic Trust and David Zwirner.
William Eggleston, Untitled, c. 1973-1978. © Eggleston Artistic Trust. Image courtesy of Eggleston Artistic Trust and David Zwirner.
William Eggleston, 10 September – 10 October 2020, David Zwirner, Hong Kong. Installation view. Image courtesy of David Zwirner.
William Eggleston, 10 September – 10 October 2020, David Zwirner, Hong Kong. Installation view. Image courtesy of David Zwirner.
William Eggleston, Untitled, c. 1973-1978. © Eggleston Artistic Trust. Image courtesy of Eggleston Artistic Trust and David Zwirner.
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David Zwirner’s tight exhibition of 1970s William Eggleston works presents a rare opportunity to see the pieces in vivid colour—and to properly understand the legacy of a man whose influence today is so pervasive it’s invisible.

 TEXT: Christina Ko
IMAGES: Courtesy of Eggleston Artistic Trust and David Zwirner

If one weren’t conversant with the trajectory of contemporary fine art photography, then stepping into David Zwirner’s Hong Kong gallery might not be a particularly emotional experience. The William Eggleston photos that hang on the walls, which were shot on film in the 1970s, look not too much different from pictures that we see nowadays—in art galleries but also, say, on Instagram: candid shots of the mundane, or simple portraits of folks interrupted from their everyday routines.

 

William Eggleston, Untitled, c. 1973-1978. © Eggleston Artistic Trust. Image courtesy of Eggleston Artistic Trust and David Zwirner.

 

Of course, anyone with even a passing interest in recent art history or who has thrown a hat in the photography game should know the given name of the man they call the Father of Colour Photography. What seems ordinary today was not, back then, and Eggleston has given modern photography more than just colour, but an entire ethos and approach that is at once both singular and groundbreaking.

The gallery has a collection of iconic photographers on its roster, and since its opening exhibition with Wolfgang Tillmans two years ago, has shown at least one great name annually, following up Tillmans with Thomas Ruff and then Philip-Lorca diCorcia. But while each of the three have had mini-survey shows at Zwirner, Eggleston’s focuses squarely on the five-year period surrounding his groundbreaking show in 1976 at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the first-ever colour photography exhibition in the museum’s history, which garnered intensely negative reactions and reviews—but set the stage for the future of art photography beyond the confines of black and white.

Those reviews are now just a blip in the past. Leo Xu, Senior Director, David Zwirner Hong Kong, sees the exhibition curation as showcasing a slice of history. “The works in this show were shot between 1973 to 1978, when Eggleston first entered the art history canon. What was his style at that time? How did he imagine the language and media of colour? The Hong Kong exhibition can provide some insights into these questions.”

 

William Eggleston, Untitled, c. 1973-1978. © Eggleston Artistic Trust. Image courtesy of Eggleston Artistic Trust and David Zwirner.

 

Critics at the time didn’t just take offense with his use of colour, although that was then a format reserved only for advertising and commercial photography. They hated his fascination with the ordinary, and his rendering of the everyday in such an undramatic manner. “Dismal figures inhabiting a commonplace world of little visual interest,” denounced The New York Times critic Hilton Kramer.

These, ironically, are exactly what make us love Eggleston today: the specific tone of sunlight that is signature to the American South; the lurid tackiness of a gigantic wall-mounted swordfish in a drab little diner; the visible edge of an open car door adjacent to a standing woman, that could so easily have been closed or cropped out. The ordinary—made extraordinary.

“They were more than just coloured black-and-white photos,” reminds Xu. “Eggleston’s early works focused on American subjects from the 1970s, such as automobiles, road trips and gas stations. Compared with his deeper observation on the socio-cultural and geographic subjects in the later works, his early works demonstrate bolder exploration in the expression of colours.”

 

William Eggleston, 10 September – 10 October 2020, David Zwirner, Hong Kong. Installation view. Image courtesy of David Zwirner.
William Eggleston, 10 September – 10 October 2020, David Zwirner, Hong Kong. Installation view. Image courtesy of David Zwirner.

 

The colours in these medium- and large-format photographs also seem particularly true because the artist was finicky and quality-driven when it came to processing, electing to use the dye transfer process, a more expensive technique that offers greater colour and tonal range, generally reserved for advertisements, but which also allowed the photographer greater control of each individual colour.

The seeming lackadaisical approach was in fact both instinctive and considered, and despite Kramer’s 1976 The New York Times review that suggested “there is no great formal intelligence at work in these pictures,” a practice Eggleston honed from early on was to shoot only one or two frames of each subject before moving on to the next. After all, when your topic of choice is the mundane, the world is your oyster. And yet, in the age before digital viewfinders when no final shot was seen until the darkroom deemed it ready, Eggleston’s rolls of film had more hits than misses, with an overwhelming number of usable snaps.

The word ‘democratic’ is often tied to Eggleston’s oeuvre, and the term is many layered—it refers to the artist’s passion for the commonplace, and his adoption of the artistically reviled colour spectrum, but also for his uncanny ability to foreground every element in the shot. In a crooked capture of a run-of-the-mill gas station, the primary-coloured gas pumps take no optical precedence over the signage behind it, or the ubiquitous Coca Cola ads that pop up in various shots, or the sliver of a parked car in between, or even the wires snaking from a power outlet.

 

William Eggleston, Untitled, c. 1973-1978. © Eggleston Artistic Trust. Image courtesy of Eggleston Artistic Trust and David Zwirner.

 

In a portrait of a bearded man, apparently caught before a smoke (the cigarette is clutched in the palm of one hand, packet in the other), his bell bottoms are a twin for the base of the lamp post behind him, and the long shadow behind him seems as important as the ostensible subject himself. There is an element of the documentary that sits equal to the work’s artistic merit, and though that may be true of any photograph from a bygone era, Eggleston’s eye seems particularly incisive, as if he had the prescience to know which elements would be icons of Memphis in the ‘70s.

“The ‘democratic’ photos free people from the stereotypes of what photography should be like,” suggests Xu. “Pictorial imitations of paintings, [with] precise and ‘decisive’ constructions, delicate tones and rendering, etc. The concept of democratic imbues the images with unique and self-possessed meaning and characters. In some way, Eggleston’s photographic practice over the past decades has suggested the fate of images in the digital age.”

And what, exactly, is that fate? An age of everyman photographers? A glut of visual information overload goaded on by this generation’s fascination with social media? To Xu, it’s not so much about monochrome versus colour, candid versus considered. “Eggleston lifts photography from the paradigm of pictorial photography or photojournalism. He aims his cameras at the individual experience of the time and socio-cultural context.”

 

William Eggleston
10 September – 10 October 2020
David Zwirner, Hong Kong

 

 

 
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