William Eggleston may not have been the first colour photographer in art, but he was, at least, among the first to exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It is hard now to imagine a time when working with colour film was considered transgressive (Walker Evans insisted it was “vulgar”) and harder still to believe that the practice could cause eyes to roll as recently as 1976, when Eggleston’s breakthrough solo show – bearing the then provocative title “Color Photographs” – was dismissed by critics as “perfectly banal”.
More than anything, his early detractors were confused. Galleries had hitherto been the domain of black-and-white photography. Colour was for holiday snaps, advertising and fashion spreads, so what was this mook from Memphis up to, with his rich reds, brilliant blues and glowing flesh tones? These were “stupid” criticisms, a grumpy Eggleston said in 2010, but his lifelong insistence that all he is interested in is simply “photographing life” has done little to loosen his association with the mundane – especially as the life he photographs is on the whole generic, earthy and Main Street American.
Yet it need not be a negative association. Ethically minded readings of Andy Warhol’s early-Sixties prints of soup cans and typewriters posit that what at first glance may seem to be profoundly banal is in fact a pursuit of the “banal profound”, in which the everyday world is interrogated and overcome, not merely reproduced. Such interpretations cannot help but look down a little on the subjects of the artworks – and Eggleston never does so – but there is something of this sense of enlargement in the photographer’s treatment of, say, light fittings, Southern diners and dolls on car bonnets. The work of both artists is concerned with making the everyday world newly compelling. The difference, I think, is that Eggleston seems not to want to overcome its banality; rather, he celebrates it, and captures its fleeting beauty.
This generous approach is nowhere more evident than in his photographs of people, 100 of which have been assembled at the National Portrait Gallery in London. The images here span Eggleston’s entire career, from the Sixties to the present, but his remarkable consistency of tone and interests gives the exhibition the urgency of a new collection. (Without looking at the dates on the labels, I couldn’t always tell which works were new and which were old.)
A few musicians and actors aside – my rock idol Alex Chilton makes a fine appearance, his body twisted in a typically awkward pose – the subjects are the kinds of people you could bump into on your way to the bar in a nightclub, or ignore while walking past their garden on a suburban street. Several are the artist’s relatives, including his children, his mother, his grandmother and his uncle. Others are those Eggleston noticed as he made the rounds; his first successful colour image, taken in 1965, was of a “pimply, freckle-faced guy” (his mean words, not mine), tending to the shopping trolleys outside a supermarket.
These undeniably low-key choices, however, do not make for dull art. One striking 1974 photograph of two girls – Eggleston’s second cousin Lesa Aldridge and her friend Karen Chatham, reclining on a brown sofa – fizzes with narrative possibility. Is the girl in blue crying? The girl in red, curled around her friend, seems to be consoling her: what is she saying? Although it’s a documentary image (the two subjects happened to drop by at Eggleston’s house after a night out), the composition is entirely unified. A wine glass behind the girls holds a flower; this is echoed by the sofa’s flower pattern, which is in turn echoed by the design on Aldridge’s dress.
An untitled picture of Marcia Hare, a red-haired woman in another flower-patterned dress, taken about a year later, could pass for a still from a lost Terrence Malick movie. Her ambiguous, sleepy face is captured from an odd angle as she lies on the freshly cut grass. A narrow depth of field forces the eye to trace an arc from one outstretched arm to the other, ending with the woman’s left hand, which clutches a clunky camera. The bright red buttons on her chest would have evoked blood and menace in a contemporary image by Guy Bourdin, but in this picture those splashes of colour only heighten a feeling of ordinary ecstasy.
That this ecstasy is so ordinary – in essence, it’s the joy of basking in the summer sun – is what makes the photograph such a pleasure, and such an accomplishment. Here is the sort of joy that pangs like pain because it’s there one moment, then it’s gone. But Eggleston has caught a fragment of it and preserved it on negative film. The show is full of such perfectly banal – or rather, perfect and banal – fragments.
The exhibition runs until 23 October
This article appears in the 10 Aug 2016 issue of the New Statesman, From the Somme to lraq