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William Eggleston invented color

The Whitney in New York has just opened a major retrospective of William Eggleston’s long career as an innovator in photography (William Eggleston:  Democratic Camera, Photographs and Video, 1961-2008), which perhaps brings full circle a journey that has been mainly centered in the American south and the Mississippi Delta (Memphis most of all) but that in 1976, and connected with an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), has had galvanizing force for the wider arts.

Although the MOMA had exhibited color photography once before and had shown photos in its galleries as far back as 1932, its decision to showcase Eggleston and his color-saturated pictures in 1976 was exceptionally controversial.  At the time the New York Times said it was “the most hated show of the year.”  “Critics didn’t just dislike it; they were outraged.  Much the way viewers were aghast when Manet exhibited Olympia, a portrait of a prostitute, many in the art community couldn’t figure out why Eggleston was shooting in color” (Belcove).  Eggleston’s subjects can be seen as totally mundane (as in the above) and his public refusal to illuminate how his main works are staged proved infuriating (and actually, to the contrary, Eggleston has long insisted that he never poses his subjects, arguing, astonishingly, that these are in every case single-shot images and that either he gets the shot or moves onto the next without regret).  Prior to Eggleston, art photography was most often black-and-white.  Thus, for students of the art and practice of photography, and given his enormous visual influence, one can say without complete hyperbole that William Eggleston invented color.

Well, maybe that is a little hyperbolic.  After all, those seeking the color founding might better retreat to the period of the “Cambrian Explosion” 543 million years ago, when the diversification of the species was sparked by the evolutionary development of vision; in that time, “color first arose to help determine who ate dinner and who ended up on the plate” (Finlay 389).  Or one might look to the late Cretaceous period – prior to that “plants did not produce flowers and colored leaves.”  Further elaborating this perspective, Finlay (391) writes that:

As primates gained superior color vision from the Paleocene to the Oligocene (65 to 38 million years ago), the world for the first time blossomed into a range of hues.  At the same time, other creatures and plants also evolved and settled into ecological niches.  Flowering plants (angiosperms) radiated, developing colored buds and fruits; vivid insects and birds colonized the plants, attracted by their tints and serving to disperse their pollen and seeds.  Plants, insects, birds, and primates evolved in tandem, with color playing a crucial role in the survival and proliferation of each.  The heart of these developments lay in upland tropical Africa, where lack of cloud cover and therefore greater luminance resulted in selective evolutionary pressure for intense coloration.

It states the obvious, but I’ll do it anyway, to note that colors, along with the human capacity to recognize and distinguish among them, transforms human experience.  Part of the reason why Aristotle so famously preferred drawing to color is that the latter can too easily overwhelm one’s critical capacities (for him this was evidenced by the fact a viewer in the presence of rich color has to step back, color blurring at close range, and in the process a necessary distancing will inevitably divert audiences from attending to the artistic details present in good drawing).  Plato had disdained color too, thinking it was merely an ornamental, ephemeral and surface distraction, a view oddly recalled later by Augustine, who warned against the threat posed by the “queen of colors” who “works by a seductive and dangerous sweetness to season the life of those who blindly love the world” (qtd. in Finlay, 400).  It was only in the 12th century that Christians came fully around to color, at about the time stained glass technology was undergoing fast refinement; suddenly colored lights were seen as evoking the Divine and True Light of God.

But for centuries color was dismissed as feminine and theoretically disparaged since it “is impossible to grasp and evanescent in thought; it transcends language, clouds the intellect, and evades categorization” (Finlay, 401).  Color was thus seen as radically irrational by the thinking and professing classes – Cato the Elder said that colores floridi (florid colors) were foreign to republican virtue – all of this an interesting contrast to the Egyptian kings who saturated their tombs with gorgeous coloration and to the Greeks who ignored Aristotle’s warnings and painted their Parthenon bright blue and their heroic marble sculptures right down to the red pupils we would today prefer to digitize out since they apparently evoke the idea of Satanic possession.

The history of color is regularly bifurcated by scholars into work emphasizing chromophilia (the love of color) and chromophobia, which by contrast has often reflected an elite view that color is garish and low class.  Wittgenstein concluded that the radically subjective response to color could never be adequately specified in a manner adequate to philosophy:  “there is merely an inability to bring the concepts into some kind of order.  We stand there like the ox in front of the newly-painted stall door” (qtd. in Finlay, pg. 383).

In the context of early film production and the industry’s emerging use of color and then Technicolor, colors were seen by some as a “threat to classical standards of legibility and coherence,” necessitating close control:

For instance, filmmakers monitored compositions for unwanted color contrasts, sometimes termed visual magnets, that might vie for attention with the narratively salient details of a scene.  Within a few years the body of conventions for regulating color’s function as a spatial cue had been widely adopted.  The most general guideline was that background information should be carried by cool colors of low saturation, leaving warm, saturated hues for the foreground.  Narrative interest should coincide with the point of greatest color contrast. (Higgins)

The ongoing power of such conventions has recently led Brian Price, a film scholar at Oklahoma State University, to argue that the imposition of saturated and abstracted color in recent films made by Claire Denis and Hou Hsiao-Hsien exemplify a resistive threat to globalized filmmaking and its industrial grip on the world’s imagination.

A paradox in Eggleston’s work is that although his subjects – Elvis’ Graceland, southern strip malls, the run down architecture produced as often by the simple ravages of time and nature as of neglect – are dated and immediately evocative of a completely different though not wholly lost and variously tempoed time, his photographs seem timeless.  Like the man himself, described by one journalist as “out of place and out of time,” Eggleston captures elements of modern life that persist and his attention to the formalistic properties of color and framing make his work arresting even for those uninterested or unimpressed by the odd assemblages of southern culture who constitute his most interesting subjects.  This paradox, in turn, can produce a sense in the viewer of vague dread, as if the contradictions inhabited by the idea of serendipitous composition reveal dangers of which we are customarily unaware.  At the same time, because Eggleston has never seemed interested in documentary reportage and has defaulted to literal photographs that instead accentuate the commonplace, he “belongs to that rare and disappearing breed, the instinctive artist who seems to see into and beyond what we refer to as the ‘everyday’” (O’Hagan).

Technically speaking, Eggleston beat others to the punch because his personal wealth enabled him to produce very high quality and expensive prints of his best work; another benefit of this wealth may be that, as Juergen Teller has put it, “he has never had the pressure of being commercial.”  The dye-transfer print process he has used since the 1960’s (Eggleston resists the shift to the digital camera and image manipulation, simply noting that it is an instrument he does not know how to play) was borrowed from high-end advertising.  And although rejected early on and in some quarters – the conservative art critic Hilton Kramer notoriously described his 1976 New York exhibit as “perfectly banal” – he has been honored late in life as a prophet in his own time – a lifetime achievement award from the Institute of Contemporary Photography and another from Getty, and other honors from the National Arts Club and others to numerous to mention.  Eggleston seems immune to the critiques whether hostile or friendly, a fact reflected in the details of his mercurial and sometimes weird personal life but also in his refusal to talk talk talk about his work:  “A picture is what it is, and I’ve never noticed that it helps to talk about them, or answer specific questions about them, much less volunteer information in words.  It wouldn’t make any sense to explain them.  Kind of diminishes them.”

The distinctive Eggleston aesthetic has influenced David Lynch (readily evident in his Blue Velvet), Gus Van Sant (e.g., Elephant, an explicit homage), Sofia Coppola (the Virgin Suicides; “it was the beauty of banal details that was inspirational”), the band Primal Scream (his “Troubled Waters” forms the cover art for Give Out But Don’t Give Up) and many others.  David Byrne is a friend and Eudora Welty was a fan.  Curiously, despite his influence on avant-garde cinema and his own efforts at videography, Eggleston professes faint interest in film, although he is said to like Hitchcock.

Finlay has noted that “Brilliant color was rare in the premodern world.  An individual watching color television, strolling through a supermarket, or examining a box of crayons sees a larger number of bright, saturated hues in a few moments than did most persons in a traditional society in a lifetime” (398).  What was true of premodernity was also true of photography wings in the world’s major art museums.  Until William Eggleston.

SOURCES:  Holland Cotter, “Old South Meets New, in Living Color,” New York Times, 6 November 2008; Sean O’Hagan, “Out of the Ordinary,” The (London) Observer, 25 July 2004; Rebecca Bengal, “Southern Gothic: William Eggleston is Even More Colorful than His Groundbreaking Photographs,” New York Magazine, 2 November 2008; Julie Belcove, “William Eggleston,” W Magazine, November 2008; Scott Higgins, “Color Accents and Spatial Itineraries,” Velvet Light Trap, no. 62 (Fall 2008)L 68-70; Brian Price, “Color, the Formless, and Cinematic Eros,” Framework 47.1 (Spring 2006): 22-35; Jacqueline Lichtenstein, The Eloquence of Color:  Rhetoric and Painting in the French Classical Age, trans. Emily McVarish (Berkeley:  University of California Press, 1993); Robert Finlay, “Weaving the Rainbow:  Visions of Color in World History,” Journal of World History 18.4 (2007): 383-431; Christopher Phillips, “The Judgment Seat of Photography,” October 22 (October 1982): 27-63.


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