Since being introduced to William Eggleston's photography - as I gradually became more and more familiar with the 'greats' - I have grown increasingly fond of it. I think it would be fair to say that Eggleston achieving 'greatness' was due in no small part to his timing. The fact that he was one of the first photographers to be recognised for utilising colour for artistic purposes in his street photography as well as the fact that there was clearly a great deal of thought put into his image making, means that now, as we look back at the history of the development of photography, his work cannot be ignored. This study visit to the National Portrait Gallery was naturally an exhibition of a selection from his oeuvre, but simply showed some of his portraits; a selection of a genre for which I wouldn't normally associate him. Firstly then, I need to try and focus on separating a review of this exhibition from simply a consideration of his work in its entirety, although clearly placing this body of work in the context of his work as a whole is important to understanding it fully.
This study visit was led by OCA tutor Jayne Taylor who I had met once before on another study visit to Tate Britain for the Salt & Silver exhibition. There were around a dozen or so fellow students, some of whom were on their first visit; one student had only signed up with the OCA the day before! Certainly there was a positive feeling amongst the group as Eggleston is a photographer who has inspired many and I wasn't the only one who had been looking forward to this for a while.
Eggleston himself said that he has a democratic way of looking around, in that everything is viewed equally, so he asks us not to view the images as sentimental or as documentary, but as individual, isolated images, no more or less important than the others; "[T]hey are all equal." he tells us. There were around a hundred images in the exhibition, so it wasn't huge, and one of the first things that struck me was that the first portraits were in black and white. This shouldn't be surprising of course, given that black and white was the norm for at least the first century of photography, but given that Eggleston is of course best known for his colour photographs, it was an interesting start and this observation was the first note I made. The early images were from the early 1960's and Eggleston appeared quick to start using colour, with some portraits from the mid-60s being in colour. He still shot in black and white though as there were some photos from the 70s which were black and white. Something else that I couldn't help but notice as that Eggleston appears to care little for composition. I doubt this is a fair observation, but many of his images break the 'rules' of composition, often chopping off feet, or having crooked horizons and so on. One reason for this may be that he would only ever shoot one frame of a subject, preferring this than to shot several and then have the problem of deciding which one is best. Although one can understand the thinking here, there is the obvious downside in that if something isn't quite right, there is no going back. This may be the reason why there are seemingly so many 'errors' in his photographs.
I really like how Eggleston uses natural light. Although the images in this exhibition were portraits and quite often indoors, there were a number of beautifully lit shots. One in particular showed a young girl in the back seat of a car, lit by a low sun. It really stood out for me. I love the way it is lit and how the girl's face isn't in shadow as you might expect it to be. He seems to have created colours that are quite soft and yet at the same time vibrant; I'm not even sure if this is possible but I think others will understand what I mean! This is the kind of image I associate with Eggleston, even though it is a portrait shot. There is another of Dennis Hopper, viewed from behind, from the back seat of a car. Again, the lighting is fabulous and he really captures a certain feel: the open road, the cigarette smoke, the warmth from the low sun. Another image which stood out showed two girls on a sofa, one girl is consoling the other; the caption tells us that the girl who is sad was earlier that evening, rejected by a man who she had asked out on a date. The man would later date the friend who was consoling her. The image looks like a pre-Raphaelite oil painting - it is stunning. The exhibition contains many other beautiful and yet often, unusually framed and lit images. Colour, and his use of colour appears to become an increasingly important element in his work as you walk through the exhibition.
After we had all browsed the exhibition we met up for coffee in the Cafe in the Crypt, across the road from the gallery. Jayne had reserved a table for us and we gathered together to discuss the exhibition and our views. In the free exhibitioin booklet there was a comment from Sofia Coppola, which read: " ... so many people take those simple snapshots of life but there's something about Eggleston that no one can match". I decided to ask this question to the group but in the end, answered it myself. I said it was purely temporal, i.e. he was in the right place at the right time when it came to colour photography. I look back even now and realise I was wrong. Colour made Eggleston famous but his images are wonderful even without his fame. I do feel that the 'greats' are often over-hyped. This si undoubtedly true. We only see part of their work and who knows what was going through their minds as they took certain shots - certainly not always what they tell us afterwards. Sometimes you take a photograph and then realise it's better for a different reason than the one you took it for. You may admit this or you may not. I suspect many photographers don't admit it. Take Cartier-Bresson for example - undoubtedly one of the greats and deservedly so - he took many intriguing, eye-catching and enigmatic images and yet there would have been plenty that were perhaps taken at the 'indecisive moment.' He may have known what he wanted but perhaps didn't always get it. Or he took many many shots of people and eventually something interesting might show up. It is unfair to pick on Cartier-Bresson in this way but the point I'm making is that we have to be careful that we don't give undue credit to a photographer or put forethought into the photographer's mind that wasn't really there. I often get these feelings when I look at he work of more 'casual' photographers such as Eggleston, Friedlander and Winogrand, and wonder why they are seen as 'greats'. Surely it can't be just being original can it? I'm sure there'll be more on this from me in due course...
Anyway - after our coffee and discussion we headed back to the NPG to have a look at a second exhibition Black Chronicles. I was disappointed by this exhibition, for 2 reasons really: firstly it was only small (and strangely split into 3 small sections in different rooms of the gallery) and secondly it didn't live up to my expectations in terms of its scope. I was hoping for a larger historical exhibition showing the history of photography in the hands and through the eyes of black people and to see who might have been the pioneers or 'the black Stieglitz' and so on; but sadly this wasn't the case. However, my personal expectations aside, what was interesting about the exhibition was that it showed many black people who had assimilated or been accepted into British life prior to the Empire Windrush bringing a large group of Caribbean immigrants to the UK in 1948. I was surprised to see several black people elevated to the nobility, although it would of course have been few and far between. Undoubtedly there would still have been a degree of fascination with the ways and cultures of these people, and this is what made these few photographs of those who had settled and were clearly in elevated positions in society quite fascinating. There also appeared to be a degree of mutual respect between those at the head of society in Britain, and those in the similar positions in Africa. There was seemingly no 'looking down the nose' at these 'savages' as one might possibly expect, but what appears to be a sincere respect for their position in society. I wonder whether it was actually later, post-war perhaps, when white Britons people started to become more judgemental of blacks and racism became more prevalent.
I really enjoyed this visit; it was a chance for me to see some of William Eggleston's work in a gallery for the first time and as ever I enjoyed the discussion with my colleagues and with Jayne afterwards.