William Eggleston wrote far better than most writers write. He wrote without words through his portraits as fleeting and resonant as a Carver story. Currently on display in The National Portrait Gallery is one of his most expansive exhibitions of 100 works dating from the 1960s to the present day.
Eggleston’s work, aside from hugely revolutionising colour photography, captures far from extraordinary people. He photographed his mum, his friends, and the passerby here and there around Memphis petrol stations and in nightclub corridors. Aside from Eggleston’s subjects as insightful, he mastered techniques of dye-transfer that have since become archaic in practice with the rise of modern technology editing softwares.
The 1975 Untitled portrait features his then lover Marcia Hare sprawled on a half yellowed stretch of grass- the yellow colouring coming most likely from the dye-transfer as opposed to the sun. The portrait’s colours are spry and feminine, its original blues and reds exposed to light and turned to magenta, yellow, and cyan. The hues glow like a glimpse of nostalgia, something of youth and naive love. Marcia wears a floral dress that rests on the grass, half in and half out of focus, her face and the cherry red buttons on her dress like marbles clear. Marcia appears like an old lover that almost anyone can relate, her buoyancy loud.
Another dye transfer print, taken in 1969 Jackson Mississippi depicts a woman on a garden sofa, her calves thin and resting on the stones beneath her. She holds a cigarette gracefully in one hand and she peers out of the corner of her eyes which hide behind the frames of her glasses, perhaps to a singing bird or an old friend. The reds and purples of her dress sit against the yellows and pinks of the sofa. She was a woman we all knew once, in a passing moment and a typical one at that.
Eggleston’s colouring techniques would have required him to touch the surface of his photographs with a tool like a sponge, to expose them to light, and transfer them to photographic paper. This serves as good reason for why his portraits have a physical hold on a viewer, much like the physicality of his then and since obsolete editing process. The portraits are personal, they have been touched and they touch in turn.
Aside from his colourful work which once debuted in the MoMA in 1976, this exhibition shares some of his black and white work, arguably as loud as the colourful portraits. A lack of colour does not restrict Eggleston’s ability to capture a subject in their space with believable grace.
Some of the portraits in the exhibition have supplemental captions. It is debatable whether or not these distract or enhance the experience, but they nonetheless help us to weave a narrative together of Eggleston’s life as a normal guy in Memphis.
Eggleston can be thanked for coining an aesthetic enriched with nostalgia and deepened by colour and light- one that in a contemporary context is often copied and considerably á la mode. Eggleston’s work leaves a feeling a deja vu on a viewer. This is one that most all of us long for- to relive ordinary moments with important people or things. A viewer is left with the inability to comprehend whether or not Eggleston’s images have been seen before, perhaps in a dreamlike or supernatural state, or in their own real lives. His portraits will follow you on bus journey or a trip to the cinema, much like a short story.
By Victoria Lancaster
William Eggleston Portraits
National Portrait Gallery
21 July – 23 October