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Archive 2011, Archive 2013

William Eggleston and I

One summer evening in 2009 while I was in Novara on holiday I went to a meeting of the local photo club. This consisted of mainly a bunch of middle-aged men but the presentation given for the night was ‘Colour’.

The speaker went through the technicalities of colour composition and balance and gave a brief excursus of the development of colour photography. Here I met for the first time William Eggleston and this was the first ever picture of saw of his work:

I was absolutely astonished as I found it so refreshing. Until then all photos I had been exposed to were all dealing with mainly the tragedy of life. I remember in particular this photo published in my Geography book:

[I finally managed to track it down (thank you internet!) – it was the World Press Winner in 1997]

In this photo, what struck me was not related to the conflict itself, but its pictorialism. It really reminded me of those religious icons of the Mater Dolorosa, and I genuinely admired the photographer’s ability. But I never thought it was something I would ever do or would be interested in doing.

William Eggleston’s photos had that ‘thing’ I could relate to in a way I had never experienced before. For some reason looking at his photos I could see my own life reflected. There was something, especially in the treatment of light that spoke of a human condition that I had experienced but I could never explain. Somehow his photos bring me back to my childhood I spent in Emilia. I look at them and I see my fuzzy memories, but they are not just images, the whole experience is there.

So from that moment on I became very conscious of the kind of photography I wanted to pursue, even though maybe I did not know how to label it – it is a problem I still have, but I think it’s a good thing…

These are the only surviving photos of my first post-eggleston shooting spree in the summer of 2009:

For my essay I decided to concentrate on W. E. I hope to have done him justice.

I report most of my essay here:

Unit 1.2: History and Theory of Photojournalism and Documentary Photography



 In this essay I would like to assess how William Eggleston’s color photography has influenced documentary photography. In order to do so, we need first to consider the environment in which Eggleston comes to operate; we also need to establish how widespread the use of color in documentary photography was, what influence did Eggleston have in this field and why this is important.

 Since the dawn of photography in the 19th century, the two aspects that have mutually influenced each other and propelled its development are the Mean (Technology) and the Purpose (Aim). In fact since the beginning as the photographic medium developed technologically it also sparked a debate regarding its social, artistic and scientific potential with a consequent growing diversification in terms of photographic interests, imagery and audiences. In the early years of the 20th century, the ability to capture images more akin to reality increased as the technology became more widely accessible. In the 1920s and 1930s the importance of visual-culture and mass-media grew exponentially with the possibility to circulate photos through new, different means (Warner Marian, M. 2010: 238). Even though there had been isolated examples of early attempt in terms of documentary photography, for example with John Thomson or Jacob Riis, it is in this period that the expression documentary photography comes into usage: when “honest documentation” was required by the American government to implement the necessary plans to face the Great Depression, in contrast with the current European aesthetics (such as Surrealism for example), the American photographers brought together working for the FSA responded to the social and political realities of the crisis developing a very distinct – documentary – style which was bound to influence and condition the future aesthetics of photography (Hurley, F.J., 1972: viii).

 Hurley claims in fact that these photographers were chosen not just because of their technical abilities, but specifically for their artistic talent: the creative act, the artistic composition was as significant as the subject or the message the photo signified (1972: 48). The FSA group was “committed to a policy of total truthfulness” while holding a sense of historicity: the idea was to capture not just the subject but catching the relation of the subjects to the environment they lived in. As the interest gradually shifted from farming communities to urban areas, documentary photography became the tool to investigate the emerging social urban landscape and it was this ability to capture the bigger picture, to place the subject in context against a cultural, social and economical backdrop whilst keeping in mind specific aesthetic canons that really allowed documentary photography to stand out as a genre in its own right (Hurley, F.J.,1972: ix, 100).

 When World War II broke out in Europe, documentary photography became inevitably focused on all different aspects of war, from pro-Nazi propaganda to the physical and emotional experiences of soldiers on the front-line. In postwar America documentary photography developed even further with the publication of Robert Frank’s The Americans. In his book, the photographer captured the sense of stillness and alienation caused by the new, emerging consumeristic culture in the States, as Walker Evans (a former FSA photographer) had done before him with American Photographs (Warner Marian, M. 2010:344). These are the works I reckon that really set the standards in terms of aesthetics and subject matter in documentary production.

 Heir to this documentary tradition, it is in this climate that William Eggleston comes to operate.

 Eggleston, born in 1939, starts to experiment with photography during his years at University being inspired by Robert Frank, Walker Evans and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Although he photographed at first in Black and White – as it was the norm – he soon started, in 1965 and 1966, to experiment using color transparency films never to return to Black and White. Between 1973 and 1974 he started using the dye-transfer process, which resulted in one of his most famous works – the Red Ceiling. (Eggleston Artistic Trust, 1992: 1)

 It is important to consider that until now, despite the technological development that allowed the production of color prints (for example in 1935, the American Kodak had introduced the first modern color film – Kodachrome) the vast majority of documentary photographic production was still in Black and White. (Roulier, A. 2008: 21)

 It could be argued that it was not just due to slow technical progress (processing color was still highly expensive and dependent on experts technicians while overall color film sensitivity to light was inferior to B&W) but mainly to the resilience of photographers to use color.

 As perfectly put by Walker Evans, color photography was considered to be “vulgar” (quoted in Rosenheim, J. et al, 2000: 137): on the one hand, color films were being used by amateurs taking the usual snapshots; on the other it had been common since the 1940s to use the rich vibrant colors rendered by dye-transfer printing for ads in glossy magazines and on billboards. (Golden, M. 2003: 4). Color “had purely a commercial application” (Holborn, M. 1992: vii), something controversial, which documentary photographers did not want to be associated with.

 Another aspect to consider is the fact that after a century, photography had finally established itself as a discipline in its own right with specific standards: adding color to composition and subject matter meant adding a new variable which was bound to incredibly influence the final result, and implied a significant change of parameters in picture taking. As Jim Lewis (2003: 1) puts it, while Black and White photos “revealed essential forms arranged in uninflected space, color caught all the surfaces” and forced the photographer to think differently about the entire composition.

 I would also argue that there was still a sort of ‘confusion’ regarding the purpose of photography: since its inception the debate had sparked on whether photography was to be considered Art or simply as a scientific tool. I find in Robert Frank’s famous quote “Black and White are the colors of photography” an uneasiness in bringing color into question: Art have always had control over color, while science was never interested in any aesthetic debate. It was possible to control and manipulate color in a studio to suit the preferences of the camera, but outside, in the real world, such control was impossible: “for the photographer who demanded formal rigor from his pictures, color was an enormous complication” (Szarkowski, J. 2002: xii). With the progressive development of documentary photography as an aid in social sciences in its broadest sense, I think it can be argued that even with a creative element present, documentary photographers did not see themselves as artists but tried to be detached from their subjects in order to report and record facts in the most objective way possible without visual distractions.

 This view is echoed by Raghubir Singh who looks at the argument regarding the absence of color in photography from a very different perspective. In Rivers of color (2005: 159) he cites several influential photographers, including Cartier-Bresson and Evans who preferred the “distancing quality in Black and White images to the emotional plunge resident in color pictures”. Moreover, looking at Western culture, he sees a “psychological empathy with black”: the angst, isolation, alienation and guilt, so well captured in postwar American photography, he observes, are significant aspects of Western 20th century vision best expressed in monochrome.

 When William Eggleston started circulating his color photographs the general reaction, it is widely known, was negative and the photos were considered amateurish in both form and content:

“In the 60s and the 70s when reportage was the predominant form, Eggleston had chosen instead to literally photograph the world around him. […] He captured the old, weird America of the rural south” (O’Hagan, S. 2004:1).

 In Eggleston’s pictures, his most predominant subjects are the inhabitants of suburban Memphis and the Mississippi delta. It has been noted that there is a sense of “commonness” in his subjects (Sischy, I, 1983: 1); the framing is often apparently casual, and the subject matter is often as banal as can be. Previous photographers had photographed the other, often what me might call the archetypes of humanity: the poor, the urbanite, the glamorous wannabe (Lewis, J. 2003: 3). Eggleston instead started documenting his own place, his own home, his own folks with an attitude that he has himself called “democratic” (Welty, E. 1989:1), an attitude that is, in which everything is represented equally by the lens and in which, therefore, color and everything it represents has just as much importance as the subject matter or the composition. I think that Eggleston’s innovation consists in the fact that in his photos color is both the mean and the subject: the subjects are delivered in color, but the photo itself is about colors and I would argue that the influence of Eggleston in documentary photography runs exactly along these two lines. Very often there is such a correspondence between form and content that one could not exist without the other. With Eggleston

 “Nearly all the photographs captured moments of color intensity and seemed to relish the fact that the world was in color – something which most photographers were still coming to terms with or trying to ignore” (Grant, R, 2002: 1).

 For example, I find an inherent essence of kitsch in the world Eggleston portrays but this does not necessarily exude from the subject matter, but rather from the color composition.

 I think that by using color Eggleston reopened the debate on the relationship between reality and its photographic representations. Eggleston’s innovations consisted in the fact that he choose to take control over color and instead of avoiding it, used it as a mean of creation. He acknowledged that colors, as qualities, are perceived emotionally and that humans live through emotional responses. Therefore by controlling color he added an emotional interpretation in the portrayal of his subjects. Potentially he represented a reality much more objective than the one represented in Black and White because he put his subject s not only within a social or economical context but also an emotional one. Focusing on what he knew and the everyday, overlooked reality, in its colorful spectrum, he moved the focus of documentary from external to internal, using technology as a mean for personal and social self-discovery and self-recognition.

 In this respect, I would argue that the introduction of color in photographic representation follows in many ways the innovation that the use of perspective brought back in 1400. In fact, with the development of perspective in pictorial representation there was a recognition of Man as the participator and observer. Using a focal point, the point of view becomes specific: the observer consciously takes a stand in relation to the representation and recognizes himself as the viewer. (Maldonado, T. 2005: 25). Adding color to photography is also the recognition that the human observer is not looking at any representation made by a machine, but he/she is looking at a representation of the world as he/she lives it from a human perspective. Representation increasingly becomes linked to the actual physical experience. In this respect, with the photograph becoming progressively a more accurate mirror of reality, one could even argue that the very concept of documentary starts to broaden (and therefore possibly loose) its value. When the photograph becomes about a whole range of human emotional experiences, what isn’t documentary?



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