William Eggleston

Book Review William Eggleston – Mystery of the Ordinary

© William Eggleston

‘William Eggleston – Mystery of the Ordinary’, published by Steidl, celebrates the enduring legacy of one of photography’s most influential figures.

─── by Josh Bright, December 8, 2023
  • There are few photographers whose names resonate beyond the confines of dedicated enthusiasts. William Eggleston is one such photographer, often dubbed ‘The Godfather of color photography’, he has left an indelible mark on the medium.

    Black & white photography by William Eggleston. Car and man

    Born on July 27, 1939, in Memphis, Tennessee, Eggleston grew up on his family’s former cotton plantation in the Mississippi Delta and developed an interest in photography whilst a student at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

    He may be synonymous with color, but Eggleston like most ‘serious’ photographers of his time, began his journey capturing images exclusively in black and white, drawing inspiration from luminaries such as Robert Frank and Henri Cartier-Bresson, as well as the vernacular, depression-era photographs of Walker Evans.

    Color photography by William Eggleston. Portrait of a woman in blue.

    ‘Mystery of the Ordinary’ opens with these lesser-known early monochrome images from the 1950s, which played a pivotal role in shaping the discerning eye that would later underpin his better-known chromatic works. It’s intriguing to witness this evolution. The framing and composition seen in his later images are apparent, yet at times, one can’t help but feel that something is missing, especially in the portrayal of the most mundane of subjects, for example, a row of milk cartons in a fridge, which one can imagine would be so much more compelling in color.

    Color photography by William Eggleston. Cars at night.

    Nevertheless, his monochrome ouevre includes a number of exceptional images and offers a unique insight into his artistic development.

    Eggleston’s switch to color photography, a decision that profoundly transformed the course of contemporary photography, was influenced in part by his friendship with fellow photographer William Christenberry, whom he met in the early 1960s.

    Color photography by William Eggleston. Boy pushing supermarket carts.
    Color photography by William Eggleston. Cups and glasses on a restaurant table.

    While it’s possible, or perhaps probable, that Eggleston’s affinity for color would have emerged anyway, there’s no doubt that Christenberry – an Alabama native who was at the time capturing striking chromatic images of the landscapes and dilapidated structures in his home state – played a pivotal role in his decision.

    Encouraged and inspired by Christenberry, Eggleston began experimenting with color, capturing similar everyday scenes and details around Tennessee and its neighbouring states as before, but now in the lustrous hues of Kodachrome.

    Color photography by William Eggleston. 2 cars in front of a shop with neon signs.

    His images took on a whole new ambiance, demonstrating his ability to transform the most mundane details into captivating moments. Comparing one of his early black-and-white images of a Coke bottle on a dinner table to a similar color photograph is fascinating. The former is certainly commendable, showcasing his impressive grasp of light and composition, yet the latter is significantly more compelling, with the reddish soda, spotlit by the late afternoon sun, contrasting beautifully against the dark green car hood.

    Black & white portrait by William Eggleston

    ‘Mystery of the Ordinary’ features some of Eggleston’s most iconic images (such as the acclaimed ‘Glass on a plane’ and his stunning 1974 profile shot of a redheaded girl at a roadside drinks stand), those that perhaps most effectively demonstrate the remarkable eye which significantly contributed to the acceptance of color photography and the elevation of photography as an art form.

    Color photography by William Eggleston. A redheaded girl at a roadside drinks stand

    However, it’s the lesser-known works, of which the book offers many, that make it truly intriguing. Together, they provide further testimony to the vision, artistry, and skill of one of the medium’s most influential living figures, a masterful practitioner who truly uncovered the ‘mystery of the ordinary’.

    . William Eggleston – Mystery of the Ordinary is published by Steidl.

    All images © William Eggleston.
    Courtesy of Eggleston Artistic Trust