Prick Photography

William Eggleston: Portraits (National Portrait Gallery, 21 July-23 October 2016)

I didn’t expect to be looking at William Eggleston in the National Portrait Gallery.

I’d seen people in his photos, but it is The Red Ceiling, a light fitting in a red ceiling and a white power chord that sticks in the memory, along with car lots and shopping precincts and fridges in butcher shops. But there are plenty of photos of family and friends, as well as the people in the Nightclub Series from 1973 at the heart of this show. His photos are extraordinary in their ordinariness, although in each one there is at least one punctum, the Barthesian prick that makes the picture sing.

Eggleston was born in Memphis in 1939; his father joined the navy and so he was largely raised by his uncle and grandfather, as well as attending a boarding school and a few universities. At the last one, the University of Mississippi, he came under the influence of the artist Tom Young, who introduced him to American abstract expressionism — although he also was influenced by Wassily Kandinsky. Eggleston was worried about his own coldness, but Young argued he should channel his indifference and take photos whether he was in the mood or not. This might be worth bearing in mind — as with Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr, the question of attitude to the people he records needs to be borne in mind.

So there is the photo of Lucille Fleming, housekeeper to the family for decades and apparently a great quilt maker, shown making a bet. And then there is Jasper Staples, house man to the family from the 1930s-1992, stood behind Eggleston’s uncle, both of them with hands in their pockets. The uncle has the look of the actor Brian Cox about him, which is a pause in itself. Both servants are African American, and of course most of Eggleston’s photographs are taken in the south, in Tennessee or Mississippi, with ghost of slavery and Jim Crow. I think there is an affection here — Eggleston seems to see them as family.

Many of the photos are of domestic settings or gardens, but there are also car parks and diners, people in cars or on cars, in shops, in cafés, in clubs. Eggleston likes windows and reflections, and is happy to over expose images for effect and uses artificial light (indeed took lighting equipment with him at times). If Ray-Jones and Parr carve out moments in time, with a world extending beyond the frame, Eggleston’s figures (and objects) seem isolated in space, even if their body cuts across the edge of the photograph. Rarely do I feel a sense of community.

There is, however, a sense of encounter between photographer and subject, although not always. A photo of a girl friend, Leigh Haizlip, tears running down her face, feels as if she is accusing him of something — has he made her cry? Is she fed up with the camera already? There’s a photo of one of his sons, Winston, on a couch, head and shoulder shot, a camera instruction manual on his chest. In the background is one of the Far Side collections, a universe not entirely alien to Eggleston’s domesticated surrealism. One black and white image has a middle aged woman in a cheeky wolves coat, horn-ringed glasses, a clutch bag over her arm, staring him down. Behind her is a chemist shop and next to her an elephant statue.

Early on, naturally, he usually works in black and white, inspired by Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson, especially the latter’s book The Decisive Moment. Certainly if you wanted to show in a gallery, you went for black and white. But William Christenberry, a painter, encouraged him to take up colour in the 1960s. (Christenberry was later to borrow a camera from him and went under cover at Ku Klux Klan meetings, first taking photographs and later getting them to pose.)

In about 1965, Eggleston took a colour photo of someone he described as “a pimply fresh-faced guy” pushing a row of shopping carts, blonde sculpted hair, the evening light diagonally across him and casting a shadow on the shop wall. Eggleston regarded this as a success and it was to mark his entry in focusing on colour. His discovery of the dye print process, in which the image is split into three colours, gave him increasing control over his rich canvas. He became friends with a dentist, T.C. Boring, who he photographs in one case in an embrace with himself, and another in the nude in Boring’s graffiti strewn, blood red-painted house — the house that has the ceiling of Eggleston’s most famous photo. In another photo, a young woman lies on the grass in a flowery dress, almost all out of focus, spaced out, perhaps even stoned, a Brownie camera in her left hand and sharply in focus.

He was also on the edge of the music scene, not just night clubs but Ardent Records, especially Alex Chilton of Big Star (one of the more intimate photos is of his cousin, consoling a woman rejected by Chilton, the other woman lying tearfully on a couch). The Red Ceiling was used for the cover of Big Star’s album Radio City. Another friend was Randall Lyon, a roadie, openly gay in a time and place when it was dangerous to be so, described as the Oscar Wilde of Memphis. Eggleston depicts him sat on a chair outdoors on a lawn at night, jumpers and jeans, walrus moustache, the side of his head rested on his hands as if in prayer, the exhibition describing him as being like a saintly martyr.

Alongside pictures of Pulitzer Prize winning Eudora Welty — also a photographer — and another photographer, Dennis Hopper (who had recently made a movie called Easy Rider), there is a stunning portrait of Joel Strummer from about 1980. Sat drinking a coke, partly out of shot, he is in a leather jacket, wearing a grey panama hat with a red and white bandana. To his left, stood a few metres away, is a young fan, out of focus but clearly wearing a Clockwork Orange tshirt and looking at Eggleston. (Is that Eggleston or his assistant, probably his son, reflected in the window?)

It would be hubristic to compare my own work, but I do recognise his aesthetic in my own favourite shots — certainly the prick in the mundane. I don’t have his patience, or his skill, but he’s definitely one of the greats.

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