If there were a pile of William Eggleston photographs spewed across a tabletop, unmatted and unframed, they might be hard to distinguish from a collection of family images haphazardly taken during a road trip or family vacation and saved as keepsakes.
But the banal and commonplace subjects of grocery store isles, fast food restaurants, and shopping malls speak in their own quiet and captivating ways while having little to really say. The magic of these images is in their ability to appear at once as nothing and something simultaneously – to resonate while almost going unnoticed, like a ceiling fan or the back of a person’s head. Eggleston doesn’t title the images with locations or people’s names, he works quickly, and he only takes a photograph once. He came to age as a photographer in the South during the rise of factory homes, department stores, and neon signs, but like his photographs, he doesn’t have much to say about that although it clearly influences him.
When Eggleston’s photographs were first shown in the late 1970s in New York’s Museum of Modern Art, there was a sentiment that the images were too simplistic and his trademark use of color film was vulgar. At a time when color images were only sanctioned for advertising and shopping catalogs, the show represented a moment in history that the Pop artists had experienced with paintings decades before: the rejection of the everyday in fine art. The everyday of advertisements, saturated color, and boredom. The criticisms didn’t seem to bother Eggleston and he kept working while the images slowly seeped into the history of fine art photography, into the documentation of Cold War America, and into the aesthetics of contemporary life. In the forty years since the MOMA exhibition, Eggleston’s style has come to define color photography in America and the mundane has become a fascination in visual culture.
William Eggleston, Selections from the Wilson Centre for Photography, at the Portland Art Museum March 26 – August 21, showcases rarely seen dye-transfer prints as well as black-and-white photographs from Eggleston’s early career. The images are known for being even more arresting in person because of the nature of the printing. And the PAM, a museum celebrated for being at the forefront of fine art photography, is a fitting host to the collection.