“At War With The Obvious” – Discovering William Eggleston

Besides being able to take a ton of street photos while in New York, I also came away with a huge learning from our trip earlier this month.

The last point of interest for us was the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We didn’t plan to see anything specific there, but just wanted to wander around the largest art museum in the U.S.

After exploring on our own for a few hours, we were on our way out when I came across a photography exhibit of works by American photographer William Eggleston. I had never heard of him before, but it was the only photography exhibit we came across in the museum, so I told my family I would just take a quick peek.

What I saw took my breath away. In fact, my husband said afterwards that he never saw me so excited in a museum before. The exhibit consisted of 75 of his photographs, taken from a series called “Los Alamos,” made between 1965 and 1974. You can view all the works via the museum’s website, but I picked a couple below that made a huge impression on me.

Oklahoma – ca. 1971–74, by William Eggleston © Eggleston Artistic Trust

This digital image hardly does this photo justice. The original is a dye-transfer print, a process that was used at the time almost exclusively in advertising. It was very expensive, but the results were striking – vibrant, saturated colours that jump out at you. In person, this photo looked like a painting to me.

Memphis – ca. 1965 – 68, by William Eggleston © Eggleston Artistic Trust

This was another one that I loved because of its simplicity and how it framed a subject we might not think twice about.

I had never come across Eggleston’s name in all the research I’ve done on street photography until now. Granted, his work may not be classified as street photography today, but there certainly are elements of it. Eggleston’s subjects sometimes included people in candid situations, but more often than not, he photographed the ordinary in his life – store signs, gas stations, cars, Coke bottles… you get the idea.

It was pure luck that this was actually a feature exhibit at the Met and I came across it. Doing more research on him, I found out he is quite famous and an influential figure in photographic art.

His goal was to find beauty in the mundane, which may be the opposite of the street photographer’s goal of looking for the “decisive moment” when making an image.

So why am I writing about him? I think it’s because he was able to find beauty in the ordinary that inspires me so. In street photography, we train ourselves to slow down and take in a scene and look for details that interest us. This was Eggleston’s approach too and he was able to make us take a second look at things we take for granted.

There are several published books of his work, but they are not cheap. The most common one for sale is called “Portraits,” and it was available at the museum for 50 bucks. I flipped through it at the time, but it didn’t include a lot of the works from the Los Alamos series. The published collection of Los Alamos comes in a three-volume set and costs $400 CDN.

I may still order it, though. I’ve truly never seen such amazing work since Vivian Maier (that’s a subject for a future post).  I don’t know if it was coincidence, but I had been editing my photos in black and white prior to my trip to New York. When I reviewed the images I took there, I decided that to really do them justice, they would have to be processed in colour.

I still go back and forth between the two. I choose black and white when I feel the colour in the photo is either distracting or adds nothing to the story I’m trying to tell. For the majority of the New York images, colour was definitely part of the story and that’s why I processed them in colour. People tend to choose one or the other – I’m still uncertain on which way I will go. I may still continue to choose both for individual images or series.

But back to Eggleston… Part of the Met exhibition included some of his famous quotes. My favourite one was, “I am at war with the obvious.” This is such a good lesson for making art: to really consider a new and unique way of expressing yourself and stand apart from the pack.

Good photographers do this all the time. I always try to be aware of what would be the typical “tourist shot” of a landmark, and stop to consider, “How do I make my image different?” The asnwer can often be found by simply moving away from where all the tourists are and capturing your subject from a different perspective or angle. Eggleston takes it to a whole other level by finding a way to make everyday, ordinary subjects look amazing through his use of colour and composition.

As street photographers, we are often drawn to busy, urban settings where it’s easier to find interest subjects doing interesting things. I live in the suburbs of Toronto where it’s not exactly a happening place. Before I took up street photography, I did try to make images of my neighbourhood with mixed results. I hope with Eggleston’s words fresh in my mind, I will venture out again in my own backyard and see what beauty I can find.

If you haven’t checked out Eggleston before, I highly recommend it.