William Eggleston’s photographs seem to exert a power to confound and mystify writers, critics and even his own editors. Here, for example, is Thomas Weski writing about the pictures collected in Los Alamos: “Time and again I have looked at the color plates of this book, and I still can’t really explain why they have preoccupied me for so long.” And this is Gerry Badger: “Indeed, so successful has he been in waging war against the obvious, it is difficult to say with certainty what his work is about. No photographer is harder to interpret in words than Eggleston.” Charlotte Higgins has written of the “magic” of his photographs, their “compositional intrigue”; no less a supporter than John Szarkowski was forced to admit that it was unclear whether Eggleston’s “bucolic modesty” was genuine or, rather, “a posture, an assumed ingenuousness designed to camouflage the artist’s Faustian ambition.”

© William Eggleston

It is refreshing, then, to read Dave Hickey’s assured introduction to Before Color, the recently published collection of early black and white work by the photographer most often credited with forcing a revaluation of the status of colour. Unlike many other interpreters, Hickey is a Southerner – one for whom Eggleston’s pictures prompt recognition rather than bemusement. He notes his own “nauseous recollection” on looking through the work; “I recognised this hopeless gaze and shared it,” he adds. It is interesting to speculate on the source of Hickey’s confidence, so at variance with other interpreters of Eggleston’s output. Perhaps Before Color makes his task easier, for it is a generous edit (scanned from original prints made by the photographer in his own Memphis darkroom), thematically grouped, gathering pictures taken during a brief period from the mid 60s to early 70s.

© William Eggleston

One possible reason for Hickey’s clarity is that it was only the later move to colour that, in effect, obscured the extent of Eggleston’s indebtedness to that branch of documentary practice exemplified by the work of Walker Evans and his successors. In other words, far from appearing ineffable or so idiosyncratic as to defy analysis, there is much in Before Color that remains well within the established boundaries of then-contemporary photographic practice. Amongst these pictures the road and its attendant iconography, for example, is ubiquitous. Automobiles might outnumber humans here. Chevron, Esso, Texaco, Shell, parking lots and motels are in abundance.

Nor is it particularly unconventional, in the decade after Robert Frank’s The Americans, for Eggleston to have found whatever glamour might once have attached to the prospect of a road trip to be now nullified… leaving only bleak grainy vistas, forlorn passengers, overturned right-offs, neon-lit roadside cafes and rainswept highways. Also of a kind with the work of Frank, and indeed in Evans, are Eggleston’s photographs of blacks in the South – here shown at segregated lunch counters or in conditions of dire poverty, or worse. As with his predecessors’ work, Eggleston’s pictures are marked by a wary distance or nervous subterfuge.

As this fascinating collection shows, there is much else besides. Not least his photographs of newly-built, nondescript and uniform homes. It was Garry Winogrand – I believe – who claimed that Frank had missed the real story of post-war America: the dulling expansion of suburban living. Not so, Eggleston – working that much later – with an eye for the spread of the new closes, their regular bungalows and vacant, low horizons.

If the work in Before Color, then, acknowledges influences – or a tradition of sorts – the colour material gathered in Twin Palm’s compelling For Now is less amenable to categorisation. Partly this is due to Michael Almereyda’s edit, designed to promote previously unpublished work and at the same time focus on many of Eggleston’s portraits of friends and family. Consequently there is a sense of intimacy and privacy to the work that is lacking from the more public themes of the black and white pictures. Mrs E. and the kids are present, as are assorted associates including William Christenberry, Walter Hopps and T.C. Boring, the dentist (!) who first appeared nightmarishly, in the 1976 Guide, naked in a graffitied red-lit bedroom. Often the apparently offhand and casual photography can blur the distinctions between portraiture and certain styles of street photography, so it is not always immediately apparent whether a given picture is fortuitous or in a sense complicit. An individual confronts the camera on a Memphis sidewalk, for instance, beyond him two unaware children are caught in awkward mid-poses… yet on inspection the picture is a family portrait of Wiliam Eggleston III.

© William Eggleston

This uncertainty as to the nature or subject of his photography is even more characteristic of those scenes which are perhaps best described as “everyday”. “Nothing happens; this is the everyday” wrote Maurice Blanchot; and the colour work here is distinguished by a recurring lack of event. A woman adjusts her collar; shotguns lie on a table; a passerby passes by; a child wanders; a cloud crosses the sun; a store window; smoke from a distant fire; an unflushed toilet. And so on…

© William Eggleston

Further, Eggleston’s elevation of the (narratively) insignificant is, famously, achieved by a seeming absence of technique – an attenuation of content coupled with the apparent abnegation of skill. The keyword being, of course, “apparent”. Or, as he puts it in one of For Nows illuminating accompanying texts: “I’d intentionally constructed the pictures to make them look like ordinary snapshots anyone could’ve taken, and a lot of that had to do with the subject matter – a picture of a shopping center parking lot, for instance. Because the pictures looked so simple a lot of people didn’t notice that the color and form were worked out, that the content came and went where it ought to – that they were more than casual pictures.”

To return to Hickey and those other interpreters of Eggleston’s work, it seems that there is a transition between the monochromatic and colour work – not just in medium, but also in the sense that the later pictures cultivate private or deliberately elusive meanings. Taken together these books show something of that process of refinement by which the later effects were worked for and achieved.  For, whatever the “snapshot” nature of Eggleston’s pictures, to quote Diderot on the painter Casanove – “It requires astonishing technique and naturalness to arrest the attention, to interest with so little.”

Guy Lane.

Before Color by William Eggleston
Published by Steidl (http://www.steidlville.com)

  • 152 Quadratone plates, 200 pp
  • 22.5 cm x 25.5 cm
  • £40

For Now by William Eggleston
Published by Twin Palms (http://www.twinpalms.com)
87 plates, 144pp
12 x 14 Inches