His photographs have drawn contradictory comments from the art world but whether his work is "perfect" or "perfectly boring", William Eggleston's vision of the everyday and experiments with dyes have earned him the title 'Father of Colour Photography'.
POL Oxygen, Vol. 8
In 1967, a beautifully groomed young photographer from the Mississippi Delta strode across the floors of New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) carrying a suitcase of colour slides.
There to wow the then curator of photography, John Szarkowski, the photographer unpacked a series of striking pictures taken in his native American South. William Eggleston swiftly secured the curator's attention.
Nine years later. MoMA would host a solo exhibition of colour photography, only the second in its history, entitled 'William Eggleston's Guide'.
The year 1976 saw the publication of a book of the same name, in which Szarkowski hailed his work as "perfect", saying it offered audiences the photographer's private view, described with clarity, fullness and elegance.
Born in 1939 and raised on a cotton plantation, Eggleston captured his first photographs around the age of 10, using a borrowed focus-free snapshot device—the Brownie Hawke-Eye.
"Everything I photographed blurred, looked horrible," he said. He delayed buying his own camera until he was marched to a store by a friend from university and ordered to hand over the cash.
He drew early inspiration from watching a continuous ribbon of small, oblong images exit from developing machines in photography laboratories. "Slowly watching these things emerge... it was one of the most exciting and unforgettable experiences," he said.
Soon after, Eggleston became entranced by the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, calling it "real art, period", "I couldn't imagine anybody doing anything more than making a perfect Cartier-Bresson. Which I could do, finally."
By the mid-1960s, he experimented with colour at a time when serious photographers were expected to adhere to the boundaries of black and white. Using a dye-transfer technique popular in 1950s and 60s advertising, Eggleston created images with heightened contrast, rich in saturated colour.
His subject matter embraced everyday objects and people, from bland rooms, garage doors and intersections, to grocery clerks, coiffured women and ageing pinball junkies.
His photographs captured a time and place: the South in the mid to late 20th century, and more broadly, America in a period of subtle emptiness.
Unsurprisingly. Eggleston's vision of an uninviting and vacant modern America confronted scores of viewers, in some cases provoking bilious outrage at the offering up of his pictures as 'art'.
Responding to Szarkowski's gushing appraisal, New York Times art critic Hilton Kramer wrote, "Perfect? Perfectly banal, perhaps. Perfectly boring, certainly."
Despite his opponents. Eggleston published a further three volumes of photography: The Democratic Forest (1989), Ancient and Modern (1992) and Los Alamos (2003).
Named after the Mexican town he travelled through in 1973, the latter draws together a sprawling series of untitled work taken between 1966 and 1974. Its subjects include images from Eggleston's travels in Memphis, the Mississippi Delta, New Orleans, Las Vegas, southern California and the Monica Pier. It also features the first colour photograph he ever crafted—a young supermarket employee collecting trolleys in low light.
For Eggleston, photographic artistry meant evading expectations. What people really want is "a figure or an object in the middle of a photograph".
"They want something obvious," he said.
"I am at war with the obvious."