'Often people ask what I’m photographing. It’s a hard question to answer. And the best I’ve come up with is, I just say, ‘Life today.'”
With vividly saturated palettes, Memphis (Tricycle) and Greenwood, Mississippi (The Red Ceiling) earned William Eggleston the title of ‘father of color photography.’ Widely reproduced, Memphis (Tricycle) was selected as the cover illustration for Eggleston’s landmark monograph, William Eggleston’s Guide, published by The Museum of Modern Art in 1976 in conjunction with the photographer’s first major solo exhibition.
Although promoted by MoMA curator John Szarkowski as a rising star in American photography, The New York Times described the exhibition as the ‘most hated show of the year' and The Village Voice called it ‘some sort of con.’ By and large, Eggleston’s seemingly banal color photographs were the subject of widespread contempt. Although the exhibition was a significant moment in Eggleston’s career, it would also prove to be a turning point in the recognition of color photography as a legitimate fine art format no longer only used for advertisements and vernacular photography.
The exhibition, comprising 75 photographs, was accompanied by the publication William Eggleston’s Guide, the Museum’s first book dedicated to color photographs. Memphis (Tricycle) has become the signature photograph associated with the landmark exhibition.
While many critics associated the title of the book with a literal travel guide of sorts, it was rather meant as a kind of guide to Eggleston’s way of seeing, in which all objects are photographed with the same level of consideration and assigned the same level of importance. The images in the exhibition and publication are often of personal relevance to Eggleston, including his childhood home, friends, and family, but are assigned no formal titles aside from location names. This method of titling, as well as his proclivity to photograph seemingly commonplace subject matter, would become emblematic of Eggleston’s way of seeing throughout his career.
By the late 1960s, Eggleston was using Kodachrome color slide transparency film, which was more stable than negative color film. At the time , the color slide was associated with the suburban American living room, where vacation and wedding photographs were shared with family and friends, not something used for fine art photographs. Doused in super-saturated color, Eggleston’s slides elevated quotidien objects and scenes – such as an open oven or a green-tiled bathroom – to subjects worthy of contemplation.
Since the commercial processes for making prints from color slide film did not meet his standards, Eggleston investigated the dye-transfer process developed by Kodak in the 1940s. Instead of using chemical methods, an image is transferred to a paper support through a series of three color separations. While typically used only in graphic art fields, the dye-transfer process had been successfully employed by photographers like Irving Penn, and Eliot Porter, who had been given the first exhibition of color prints at The Museum of Modern Art in 1943 (Eliot’s photographs documented colorful birds, thus classifying the images as nature photography and making his use of color prints acceptable). The dye-transfer process, in addition to being very stable, provides rich color and allows for careful layering. Eggleston’s first color photograph, showing a teenage grocery store clerk pushing a train of carts back to the store entrance, is evidence of the otherworldly, haunting ambiance a dye-transfer print can provide.
‘The warm light gave the picture of the supermarket worker a sympathetic note at the same time that it cast a sobering look at the American dream.’
Eggleston’s compositional choices were shocking to critics used to straightforward images taken from eye-level. To photograph the tricycle featured in Memphis, Eggleston lay on the ground, his vantage-point inflating the toy to an absurd size and showing what the world must look like to an insect. While indeed jarring, the compositions are anchored in conventional compositional methods. In his introduction to William Eggleston’s Guide, Szarkowski wrote that when Alfred H. Barr, Jr., MoMA’s first director, initially encountered Eggleston’s work, he noted that the composition of most of the pictures seemed to radiate from a central, circular core.
It is also worth noting that most of the images in William Eggleston’s Guide employ the principle of The Golden Triangle, utilized by artists for hundreds of years to compose the viewpoint of a painting. Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa may be one of the most famous examples. The Golden Triangle dictates that the main compositional elements follow the strong diagonal lines of a triangle. In Memphis, a clear triangle is formed by the tricycle, which anchors the other elements, including the middle-class ranch homes and cars lining a quiet street. These visual details subtly place 1970s American family life at center stage. Looking closer, however, Eggleston also included the rusting metal on the tricycle and the sun-scorched grass, alluding to the unattractive and unspoken facets of the so-called American Dream.
While these and many other images in William Eggleston’s Guide do not feature human beings, their presence is felt nonetheless in the detritus they leave behind. In the same way that Robert Frank, a photographer whom Eggleston admired, so deftly examined 1950s America in his grainy black and white photographs (see lots 106 and 112, Eggleston seized upon the Leica camera and color slide film to investigate 1970s America, which he found to be rife with alienation, longing, loneliness, and sentimentality.
Dye-transfer prints from this edition are rare. Prints are in the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, the San Francisco Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the J. Paul Getty Museum, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
‘They focus on the mundane world. But no subject is fuller of implications than the mundane world! When you see what the mundane world so openly and multitudinously affirms, there is everything left to say. Mr. Eggleston’s camera brings it forth. His fine and scrupulous photographs achieve beauty. All they have to tell us, in all their variety, reaches us through the beauty of the work.’
Imagine: The Colourful Mr. Eggleston, BBC, 2009
Imagine | The Colourful Mr Eggleston