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William Eggleston Portraits

William Eggleston once told the author Mark Holborn, “I am at war with the obvious.” The obvious, or the mundane, are hallmarks of Eggleston’s contribution to the art of colour photography.

Yet, I’ve never really appreciated a lot of those pictures that Eggleston has made around his home town of Memphis, Tennessee. A well-off white privileged male making pictures of neon signs and ordinary life with expensive (to me) Leica film cameras. In that regard, I’m a bit like anybody with the uneducated taste for pictures of the mundane. I’ve always thought of most Eggleston photographs as good pictures of nothing much. And of Eggleston as “just that rich eccentric guy from Memphis” with his cliche Southern accent.

However, when Eggleston makes a good picture it can be a bloody good picture. It is difficult to appreciate a photographer’s work from the low resolution images found on blogs and gallery websites, or even reading their books – there is really no experience like going into art galleries and looking at them within the mundane environment.

To that end, I couldn’t resist dragging my partner into the William Eggleston Portraits exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria a few weeks ago.

Eggleston is a master of light. There, in a nutshell, is photography. I’ve always appreciated that Eggleston has captured generations of Memphis (and American) culture with his daily photographic excursions into that mundane. But the portraits… the portraits, in real life, are for the most part something worth seeing as curated fragments of a lifetime displayed on a gallery wall.

When you walk into this exhibition there is the often seen picture of the old woman on that rusty couch. I don’t think the detail of that image comes through without standing there in the gallery. The rusty couch, the old lady, the bright cushion, her distraction, the busy leaves and background. Online I’ve always pushed past that image with a so-so shrug. In person, it’s much more impressive.

William Eggleston photograph of an old lady on a rusty couch

Similarly, that quite lovely picture of the back of an old lady’s hair in a cafe. In real life, on a wall in a gallery, that is a beautiful and interesting image. The two hands with cigarettes. One left handed, the other right handed. The colour. The voluptuousness of the light.

Old lady with her back to the photographer in a cafe booth

Sure, I don’t get a lot of Eggleston’s work. It’s the mundane. I kind of get the idea he’s talking about. But I do now appreciate a lot more than before that this man has contributed to colour photography as an art form that belongs on gallery walls. They are beautiful. Interesting. Enviable. Sometimes even a little smarter than they appear at first glance. I like Eggleston’s Portraits a lot.

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About the Author

Steven Clark Steven Clark - the stand up guy on this site

My name is Steven Clark (aka nortypig) and I live in Southern Tasmania. I have an MBA (Specialisation) and a Bachelor of Computing from the University of Tasmania. I'm a photographer making pictures with film. A web developer for money. A business consultant for fun. A journalist on paper. Dreams of owning the World. Idea champion. Paradox. Life partner to Megan.

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