The year is 1976. New York City.
William Eggleston’s exhibition has just debuted at the Museum of Modern Art. Unfortunately, it hasn’t gone down well.
“Eggleston’s photographs strongly resemble the color slides made by the man next door; and his show at the Modern was the most hated show of the year”, Hilton Kramer of the New York Times wrote.
He goes on:
Over four decades after his infamous exhibition, he is now celebrated as the photographer who brought colour photography to the mainstream.
How did this unpopular exhibition later have such an influence on modern photography, influencing film and pop culture alike?
The easy option might be to look at the photographers who influenced Eggleston’s work and leave it at that.
But all creative journeys are complex. They’re as rich as life itself. Full of twists, turns, unexpected detours and… dots.
Collecting the dots
Think of any creative journey as the collecting of dots. Dots are collected consciously and subconsciously, and they are the raw materials of your creative expression.
These raw materials can be derived from our interests, personalities, life experiences, random encounters or anything in between.
In his now widely quoted Stanford commencement speech, Steve Jobs hinted at how we might collect our own dots:
Indeed, it was Jobs’ early interest in Zen Buddhism and a chance calligraphy class at Stanford that influenced the minimalist design and typography of Apple products.
Here, it’s important to note that Jobs had no inkling that Zen Buddhism would one day influence the design of his consumer electronics.
The same can be said of the calligraphy class. He wasn’t even enrolled!
How he came to be in the class is a superfluous detail.
What’s important is that those dots would later influence his creative life, even if he had no intention of them doing so at the time.
Collecting the dots is the absorption of information.
They won’t be exclusively related to photography, of course.
And like hotels on a Monopoly board, the more dots you have, the better.
A greater number of dots means more permutations. More permutations mean a greater chance that you will express something unique.
Your dots might consist of subtle composition cues that you picked up from Edward Weston’s portfolio.
Or maybe you like to shoot riparian landscapes. What might that book on Claude Monet’s meticulous study of water and light do for your creativity?
Maybe you love to watch TV and one day you discover that your photographs are subconsciously channeling Better Call Saul. Specifically, the way light and contrast portray Chuck McGill’s dimly-lit home as he descends into madness.
* * *
A cursory look at William Eggleston will find that he had several dots common to many people.
- He had an introverted nature.
- He attended boarding school and university.
- He came from a wealthy family.
- He grew up in Tennessee.
His more common dots certainly played a role in influencing his photography, but they only tell part of the story.
Everyone can buy the same old potting mix, but the seeds will determine the nature of the creativity that emerges from the soil.
You might have the same potting mix as your neighbour, but maybe your yard gets more sunshine than his.
Maybe your seedling got decimated by insects and it is finding meaning in the struggle to survive.
Maybe you just used different seeds.
A pretty poor analogy really, but hopefully it conveys the point I am trying to make. You are unique! So use it your advantage.
What sort of creativity emerged from Eggleston’s soil?
Let’s look at his common dots and how they contributed to his creative growth.
He had an introverted nature
Nothing exciting there. Many photographers are introverts.
But consider his introversion in the context of growing up in the conservative, deep south of America. Most young men his age were engaged in traditional activities such as sport and hunting.
Eggleston preferred to read, play the piano and tinker with electronics.
He would later acknowledge that while he didn’t feel like an outcast at the time, he probably was regardless.
His introversion was likely to be the reason that he worked alone in his formative years. He was virtually unheard of before he burst on to the scene at age 30 in 1969.
In some respects, it probably enabled him to forge his own path and be less influenced by others. That’s not to say he didn’t have idols, of course.
His loose, organic, one-take shooting style might also have been influenced by his introversion. He liked taking pictures of people, but he preferred that they were unaware of his presence.
Eggleston’s method of taking photographs certainly helped him to capture the moment, as it were, but he probably preferred to operate that way regardless.
He went to boarding school and university
Eggleston was enrolled in an austere private boarding school at age 15, but it wasn’t a good fit. He took issue with the Spartan routine of ‘building character’ that the school employed, and the way that interest in the arts was considered effeminate.
A friend he met at boarding school later suggested that Eggleston buy a camera, rekindling his interest in photography:
He attended three different universities but never completed a degree. But not for lack of intelligence or application.
He wasn’t interested in the idea of having to pass exams, preferring instead to take art classes and lay the groundwork for a career in photography.
He grew up in a wealthy family
His wealth, to some extent, afforded Eggleston a life of privilege. He was able to use that time at university to learn indiscriminately. A degree and subsequent career was not the end goal, and it didn’t need to be.
He was able to afford the crème de la crème of printing processes. Named dye-transfer, it was a process normally reserved for commercial advertising. At $1,000 for the first print, it would have been out of the reach of most photographers.
Eggleston saw the way that the process was used to advertise everyday objects such as cigarette packets and perfume bottles in vivid, saturated colours that never faded.
It was a perfect match for his subject matter and style. He simply had to use it, and his wealth gave him that ability.
He grew up in Tennessee
So have millions of others, of course. But his formative years were spent during a period of great change.
Post-war consumerism was booming and automobiles were becoming commonplace. Many of Eggleston’s photographs feature cars and car-related infrastructure, and many shots were also taken from moving cars.
The hallmarks of consumerism became entrenched in the landscape. Gas stations, parking lots, shopping malls, supermarkets, restaurants, discarded objects and household interiors are all subjects that feature prominently in his work.
One of the benefits of consumerism was that people were able to own cameras, and Eggleston would spend many late nights with a friend who worked in a drugstore developing photos.
He would spend hours analysing other people’s snapshots, and think about how he might be able to improve on their compositions.
Interpreting Eggleston’s dots
We can assume that Eggleston was reasonably comfortable with being different. And if not reasonably comfortable, at least unwilling to let it stand in his way.
His dislike of rules or established ways of thinking might explain his eventual decision to shoot in colour, but also to wield the camera in an unorthodox fashion at subject matter which most thought equally unorthodox.
He developed a certain humility and pragmatism about being different. As a result, he didn’t fall into the trap of pleasing others. Nor did he indulge in novel techniques or subject matter for the possible fame it might bring him.
Either by chance or by design, his compositions and bold use of colour are often unsettling to the viewer.
He mostly eschewed the use of his camera’s viewfinder, resulting in chaotic compositions that break every “rule” in the book.
Despite being somewhat chaotic, his compositions are deliberate and constructed. They invite contemplation and intrigue. Many highlight aspects of human existence that are often ignored – such as isolation, growing old, poverty, and segregation.
His work is undoubtedly banal, but the banal has a depth that invites further investigation. One cannot help feel a degree of reverence for the human condition after looking at his photos.
His work accurately portrays shared human experiences that transcend generations, continents, and cultures. It’s relatable and thus, oddly comforting.
He once remarked that Memphis was an ugly place to take photographs, but his work over several decades in the area would suggest that he didn’t hold on to that view for very long.
By bringing the boring and banal to the mainstream, he removed the stigma from the shittier parts of life.
99% of life is indeed boring, banal and trivial. Eggleston doesn’t want you to forget it.
In the course of our lives, we’ll spend more time at the supermarket than we will on a rollercoaster.
We’ll spend more time waiting in traffic than we will at our own children’s birthday parties.
Why should we not photograph the banal?
How you can collect and connect your dots
Unfortunately, collecting enough dots to express yourself will take time, and time cannot be hurried.
Collecting dots is the easy part. You simply live your life and let the winds of fate carry you where they may.
That’s not to say you won’t have to make reasoned, informed choices at times.
Eggleston made a conscious choice to invest in dye-transfer printing because his creativity demanded it.
But it was fate that led him to Chicago, where he happened upon the process being advertised in the first place.
For the younger photographers, or even for those who are unsure of themselves creatively, look deep within!
If the well is dry, go out and fill it with new experiences. Read, watch, play, learn, fail! Then send the bucket down once more and see what comes up.
Introversion, education, wealth and consumerism. These are but four of the pillars of Eggleston’s creative journey. Several decades of life experience did the rest, layer upon layer.
His dots are drawn from a large and varied range of interactions. He made many choices along the way, and many other choices were made for him.
Connecting the dots is hard. Believing in those connections is harder. It means that you have to arrange what you have collected into some sort of coherent, creative expression.
The pinnacle of creative expression lies in making connections between seemingly unrelated dots, and then communicating those relationships in your photography.
In choosing to exhibit his boring, banal, colour photography against the prevailing sentiment of the time, Eggleston was a man who had connected his dots with care, insight and precision.
His conviction in himself was a conviction in the dots, the millions of interactions that shaped him as a person, and as a photographer.
He was most fulfilled when he used the dots to make personally satisfying work. It was far more important to him than the black-and-white status quo of the time.
For a man who now commands a great deal of respect, the dots that lead him there are no more remarkable than the subjects in his photos.
His creative backstories, like the subjects of his photos, are more interesting and complex the longer you dwell on them.
The good news is that anyone can achieve what he has achieved with a bit of application and self awareness.