All Things Banal And Beautiful

William Eggleston is the godfather of colour art photography and a master of everyday America

Art
Always elusive:"Untitled, 1970-74 (Dennis Hopper)" by William Eggleston (©EGGLESTON ARTISTIC TRUST)

William Eggleston is the man credited with making colour photography into an acceptable art form. It happened as late as 1976 with an exhibition at MoMA, New York when art photography, if you recognised such a genre, still meant black-and-white. Eggleston’s pictures showed nothing dramatic, just unspectacular, everyday scenes; images from a man committed, as he said, simply to “photographing life”. Henri Cartier-Bresson proclaimed that photography was all about capturing “the decisive moment” and for him that meant instances of oddity or compositional wit. Eggleston, born in 1939, is a devotee of Cartier-Bresson but his decisive moments lie in the mundanity of a man eating a burger, a lightbulb against a red ceiling, a girl in a bar drinking from a bottle of beer or an elderly woman in a floral dress smoking a cigarette.

His realm is not the great urban centres of America but the old-fashioned states of the south where he grew up and lives — Georgia, Mississippi and Tennessee: ordinary regions for ordinary subjects. Except that his photographs are not that ordinary, as the exhibition of 100 of his portraits at the National Portrait Gallery reveals. In their very nondescriptness they show that there is interest to be found in every face and every object — that everything is worth a second glance because there is an inherent strangeness to it.

The artist Ed Ruscha, another aficionado of the gas station and diner, said of Eggleston: “When you see a picture he’s taken, you’re stepping into some kind of jagged world that seems like Eggleston World,” but he is only half right. The photographs may be distinctively Eggleston’s but the world they reveal is an Everyman’s America. He adds no props and photographs what he sees without rearranging or posing his subjects. He photographs the banal without taking banal photographs.

This exhibition mixes his early black-and-white portraits with his later colour ones and his subjects are a mix too of anonymous sitters, of friends and family and of the famous. Dennis Hopper takes his place alongside snatched images of a young black woman leaving a burger bar or a boy caught in the low evening sun pushing a row of supermarket trolleys. It was this last image, taken in 1965, that Eggleston regards as his first successful colour photograph (see below). It was, he said, just a picture of “some kind of pimply, freckle-faced guy in the late sunlight. And by God, it all worked.”

What makes his pictures so striking is their colour and their sense of mystery. Eggleston started working properly with colour transparency film in the mid 1960s but it wasn’t until the early 1970s when he came across the dye-transfer process usually used for graphic art that he found a way of fixing the saturated tones he saw around him: “Every photograph I subsequently printed with the process seemed fantastic and each one seemed better than the previous one.” His reds became richer, his blues more blue, his yellows sharper.

The mystery though is harder to account for. The people in his photographs rarely smile at the camera and rarely look entirely comfortable either: their expressions show blankness or mistrust, indifference or aggression. This lack of welcome perhaps accounts for the sense that they are involved in something that the photographer and viewer cannot share. There is in all his work a narrative at play — sometimes it is poetic and sometimes sinister, though always elusive. His lens keeps the viewer separate from this world even as it reveals it. In this Eggleston’s photographs have some of the qualities of Edward Hopper’s paintings and David Lynch’s films.

Another artist who used colour in a controversial way was the Neoclassical sculptor John Gibson (1790-1866). Now largely forgotten, Gibson was in his lifetime one of the most highly regarded sculptors in Europe, a pupil of Canova who numbered Queen Victoria among his patrons. The statue that caused a fuss was his Tinted Venus made in Rome c. 1851-6. It wasn’t the figure, a nude Venus carrying the golden apple presented to her by Paris, that attracted attention so much as her painted yellow hair, blue eyes, rosy lips and pale pink flesh. These colour touches were Gibson’s attempt to create an authentically correct Greek statue prompted by the recent discovery that the ancients had coloured their carvings. This deviation from pure white marble left the Athenaeum, and many others, fuming: the magazine dismissed Gibson’s “sculptural polychromy”, describing the statue as representing “a naked impudent English woman”.

The RA’s new exhibition, John Gibson RA: A British Sculptor in Rome, marking the 150th anniversary of his death, includes some 30 of his works and provides a perfect opportunity to assess whether his fall from notice is merited. The works include statues, casts, reliefs and drawings from the substantial bequest Gibson made to the RA. Almost all the pieces were made in Rome, where the sculptor lived from 1817 without any intention of returning home, writing: “In England my life would be spent in making busts and statues of great men in coats and neckties; here I am employed upon poetical subjects which demand the exercise of the imagination, and the knowledge of the beautiful.”

Neoclassicism may be too dry for modern tastes but Gibson’s work nevertheless displays a consummate clarity of line, and his sculpture, particularly his bas- reliefs, is marked by a purity that eschews prettiness.

Gibson believed that “the human figure concealed under a frock coat and trousers is not a fit subject for sculpture”, so Queen Victoria’s request that he sculpt her “like a Greek statue” perfectly accorded with his own instincts. Perhaps the fact that he himself was an untidy dresser — he shocked a visitor to his studio who found him “dressed with extraordinary slovenliness and indifference to clothes, had no collar, I think” — influenced his tastes.