William Eggleston, National Portrait Gallery, London

‘William Eggleston: Portraits’, National Portrait Gallery, London 2016

This is an excellent exhibition and is the accompanying by a book by Phillip Prodger (Prodger, 2016). I will comment on the book elsewhere but it does have a thoughtful introduction which presents him as a pioneer (not just of colour), lots of images, a chronology of his life  and an interview with Eggleston on pages 150-173.

Back to the exhibition of portraits. The portraits cover early black white which is superseded by the onslaught of colour in 1970 to 1984, with many of his most recognisable images in the early 1970’s.

My first reaction was to the colour, which is Kodachrome which leans toward the red end of the colour spectrum. Someone said that “he is the grandfather of colour,” which may be true, but the colour tone reminded me of the work of Ryan McGinley. McGinely does not reference Eggleston as an influence although both had their breakthrough exhibitions at MOMA (Eggleston – 1976; McGinley 2003)). ‘Untitled, 1970-4 (Dennis Hopper)’ has the same carefree vibe as ‘Hair’ by McGinley and both taken in a station-wagon travelling through the mid-west and intense colour to the red end of the scale. Setting and subject create mood but lighting and colour do too.

One of the most interesting things about most of his portraits is his choice of background and the known context; there is always a real and visual narrative. A good example of this is ‘Untitled, 1969-70 (the artists uncle Adyn Schuyler Senior with his assistant and driver, Jasper Staples, in Cassidy Bayou, Sumner Mississippi.’ The denotative aspects of the image are the black suited grey haired middle-aged man with white shirt and striped tie. To his right and slightly behind is a black man who may be slightly older with black trousers  and white shirt and jacket. Both have their hands in their pockets and gaze to something on the left out of the frame. In the left third of the frame is a white car with its door open. The car is on a bed of leaves with small trees around and a small lake and buildings in the distance.

What does this mean (connate)? We are in Mississippi as referenced to the title of the work. The placement and clothing of the two men suggest that the black man is deferential to the other but we know that this is his driver and assistant. The car appears to be a ‘status car’ such as a Cadillac.

Schuyler is Eggleston’s uncle, but this image is a picture of the relationship between black and white people in Mississippi in the 1970’s. We see the ‘power dressed’ ‘Old White Man’ and the dependant servant mimics his master with his habitus of hands in pockets. Is this an oppressive relationship? Other information suggests that this is ‘benevolent’ in nature. I like the tan leaves as a backdrop for the image. Perhaps this form of structural rather than personal racism was already in the autumn of its time in Cassidy Bayou and with Adyn Schuyler?

My other stand out image is ‘Untitled. c 1975 (Marcia Hare in Memphis, Tennessee.’ I have seen this image before in New York and was struck by the composition and colour then too. The depth of focus on the buttons and face and camera work to draw you into the scene and to emphasise the focus. I realise that the original way of printing this involved three colour negatives and then combining them – tricky!

That’s all for the moment until I have read the book.

Prodger, P. (2016). William Eggleston: Portraits. London, National Portrait Gallery Publications.

What I have I learnt?

  1. I prefer colour signature of K5850 for most of my work but have been using much higher K’s as this has been appropriate for the mood and context of my work. Colour is a factor in creating mood.
  2. Placement in the frame is important – you often see triangles or rows of objects in his background.
  3. Background matters and so has to be a choice – conscious is possible. I need to pay more attention to this as it will be visible to read in the images.
  4. There is not a lot of text with the images – some notes with the images would be helpful.