Monday, August 13, 2007

William Eggleston's 5x7 and New American Color Photography

The Guardian has an interesting review of William Eggleston's 5x7 colour work from 1974, currently being shown in conjunction with the Edinburgh Festival.

But before that, as I was reading the review and looking at some of the pictures, a couple of things struck me, especially in conjunction with the ideas in an earlier post about Contemporary American Color Photography.

First, despite the sometimes obviously outdated fashions and hairstyles, I was really struck by how utterly contemporary so many of these pictures look. This is how so much colour photography is done today - and yet Eggleston still seems so often to be head and shoulders above most of the best and the brightest. It's not simply in his uniquely masterful use and understanding of colour, but also in his choice of subject and the way he manipulates it.

Which feeds into the second thing. In responses to Christan Patterson's orignal post about Contemporary American Color Photography, as well as in some responses to mine, there was a thread which went something along the lines of "why should photographers be concerned about tradition, about what has gone before, about what "tradition" you might be working in" - along with a few who claimed it was better for a photographer to ignore such things all together (for fear of visual/conceptual contamination?).

Well, one simple answer to that (and only one) is that if you don't, you can spend an awful lot of time re-inventing the wheel - and when it's finished and you stand back, you realise huh - oval wasn't the best option after all. Someone else figured out round was better 35 years ago. By which I mean: if you browse few a few books by Eggleston and then sit down and look at a lot of what is being touted as the freshest work being done today, it's surprising how much of it looks like early Eggleston - only not quite as good. Sometimes down to almost being a clone.

But back to the review of Eggleston's 5x7 colour work from 1974. As far as I can tell some of these pictures can be found in the book William Eggleston 5x7 (along with the black and white he was doing at the time), but this seems to be the first time they have been printed up for a major show. From the Guardian:

"Memphis1974 and the jukebox is playing Al Green and Isaac Hayes. The girls have feather cuts and the guys wear Burt Reynolds moustaches. It is hot and dark and a swordfish glints from the wall; though dawn is coming up soon, it still feels like midnight in the bar. A little stoned, a little drunk, the revellers give themselves to the lens with the unresisting candour of the weary, yet their faces emerge from the darkness with the unexpected clarity of Dutch portraits.

The sheer grandeur of the photographs in William Eggleston: Portraits 1974(Inverleith House; until 4 October) startle and not simply because these portraits were made - ahead of their times - with a large-format camera. It is more that Eggleston is noted precisely for his level gaze, his democratic lens, for drifting through America shooting everything from roadside graves to low-wattage drugstores with the same dark-adapted eye.

It is all equal to him, or at least he never draws more attention to one subject than another, yet one feels he knows these Memphis folks of old: the sullen belle, the hippy chick, the president of the Singing Cowboy fan club.

He knows and loves their individuality, the way this girl throws her head back to the beat, the way that girl smiles forgivingly at her drunken lover. Outside, and next morning as it seems, the rheumy-eyed preacher stares knowingly off into the blue and Jackie O lives on in the crimplene knock-off dress worn by a housewife passing by.

These portraits are stark but subtle, their spontaneity a result of Eggleston's extreme reticence behind the lens. The format allows for incredible detail - split ends, the down on a teenager's lip, the caking of Max Factor panstick - and for great scale of temperament. Sweetness, deference, defensiveness and spite, too much sun and too much drink before dawn. Eggleston once said he thought of his photographs as 'part of a novel I'm doing' and these people, more than any before or since, seem to be central characters".

and from another review:

The exhibition features 24 large-format colour photographs, which measure 30x20 inches, and document scenes of day-to-day life in Memphis. All of the images were taken in 1974 but have only recently been printed for the first time.

The timing of this body of work is significant for a number of reasons. Just a year before these images were shot, Eggleston had come across a new colour printing technique, which until then had only been used in commercial photography work such as advertising.

The new technique was called dry-transfer printing and as soon as Eggleston saw the depth of colour saturation and quality of the ink that it afforded he was keen to apply it to his own work.

It’s very evident to see in these 24 dry transfer prints why the new colour printing process got Eggleston so excited. A dry transfer print is produced from three separate negatives made by photographing the original negative through red, green and blue filters, and the result is a sumptuousness of colour that give the images a remarkable vibrancy.

The image of a woman standing on a road in a yellow dress is so fresh that it could easily have been taken yesterday, even though the fashion clearly dates it to the early 1970s. The colours are so rich and luxuriously saturated that the dress seems to actually glow – the treatment and texture seem more akin to abstract painting than portrait photography.

Again, in the three-quarter length portrait of a young man in a vivid pink t-shirt, Eggleston has managed to capture this painterly technique really well. Here, the man’s blond wavy hair looks as though it has been applied in a wonderfully free and loose brushstroke. The texture is so feathery and soft that it is hard to believe that this is really a photograph at all.

And if you happen to want the back-story on the picture of the two girls on the couch, you can find it here.

Finally, the William Eggleston Trust has some fascinating things up on the website, such as pages from Eggleston's notebooks, among other things (lots of essays, articles and book intros.):



Anonymous said...

i was at that show in edinburgh last week and they were *not* dye tranfers, they were inkjets, very beautiful at that...

tim atherton said...

ha - brilliant

Doug Rickard said...

yes... Eggleston is utterly fantastic and you are right, a pioneer of sorts in terms of approach, content and style.