What is it that makes this image – New Orleans, Louisiana, 1980, taken by the American photographer William Eggleston – so utterly compelling? Immediately it is pure colour: the vivid shift of red of the first lady’s dress, and the matching red accent in the belt of the second lady; the complementary greens of the grass on which they walk and the encompassing foliage; and the sequence of beiges, in the second lady’s white shirt and khaki skirt, in the cream of her bag and the overhanging flowers, and over to the right in the sandy-coloured automobile.
Then also it is composition. The figures are cropped, and doubly so, because not only does the first lady begin from the calves, but the second lady too doesn’t quite have the whole of her foot in frame, cut-off at the left heel. We are positioned as an interloper, entirely out of shot, but as though we were walking just behind the two figures depicted. The ladies are young – possibly still girls – but the rich red they wear, almost Venetian, endows the photograph with a certain classicism whose austerity is pronounced by virtue of the fact that they show us only their backs. This isn’t a harsh image, but at the same time as it draws us in, it keeps us at a brief distance, sober, dignified, and elegant.
We are encouraged towards a narrow perspective between the two ladies, which finds a house at the end of the street. And the photograph is full of subtle, sympathetic contrasts and textures: the worn grass offset by the lush trees; the crisp combination of a shirt with lace collar and sleeves, leather belt, and pleated skirt softly disrupted but matched in refinement by the looser cotton with its shoulder straps and shorts; even the straightened, tightly-bound hair on the one head balanced by the frizzier head of hair on the other, with its silver clip, gathered slightly to one side.
Altogether the atmosphere the photograph evokes – the warmth, the heavy and fragrant air, the still calm of the setting – becomes almost tangible, as what could have been a commonplace image of two young women walking, nicely dressed, down a quiet street becomes something stopped and skewed, immediate and extraordinary.
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William Eggleston was born in 1939 in Memphis, Tennessee. Taking up photography during uncompleted spells at Vanderbilt University, Delta State College, and the University of Mississippi, he was initially inspired by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans, and Robert Frank, and like these artists photographed in black and white. But from the middle of the 1960s, upon the prompting of his friend, the photographer William Christenberry, Eggleston turned to colour.
By the early 1970s he was experimenting with dye-transfer printing, a process typically used only for advertisements. Eggleston later recalled that he discovered the process viewing a Chicago print lab’s price list:
‘It advertised “from the cheapest to the ultimate print”. The ultimate print was a dye-transfer. I went straight up there to look and everything I saw was commercial work like pictures of cigarette packs or perfume bottles but the colour saturation and the quality of the ink was overwhelming. I couldn’t wait to see what a plain Eggleston picture would look like with the same process. Every photograph I subsequently printed with the process seemed fantastic and each one seemed better than the previous one.’
Eggleston quickly made his reputation on these highly saturated coloured prints. Several of his most famous works were studies in red, such as The Red Ceiling, taken in 1973 (also known as Greenwood, Mississippi, 1973 – Eggleston had a documentarian’s impulse for place names and dates, although never too specific):
‘The Red Ceiling is so powerful, that in fact I’ve never seen it reproduced on the page to my satisfaction. When you look at the dye it is like red blood that’s wet on the wall. The photograph was like a Bach exercise for me because I knew that red was the most difficult color to work with. A little red is usually enough, but to work with an entire red surface was a challenge. It was hard to do. I don’t know of any totally red pictures, except in advertising. The photograph is still powerful. It shocks you every time.’
In 1974 he received a Guggenheim Fellowship, and was appointed a Harvard lecturer in Visual and Environmental Studies. The same year, he completed his first portfolio, 14 Pictures, which brought together fourteen recent dye-transfers; and Los Alamos, a collection of photographs taken between 1966 and 1974. In 1976, he was given a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. The exhibit was accompanied by a monograph, entitled William Eggleston’s Guide, and proved pivotal in establishing the artistic value and institutional acceptance of colour photography.
Election Eve followed later that year: the product of a Rolling Stone commission which saw Eggleston photographing the Plains, Georgia birthplace of Jimmy Carter before his election as United States President. 1979 saw the small volumes The Morals of Vision, Flowers, Wedgwood Blue and Seven; and 1980 Troubled Waters and The Louisiana Project.
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New Orleans, Louisiana, 1980 was one of ninety unpublished photographs collected in 2010 for For Now. The book was compiled by Michael Almereyda, the filmmaker who back in 2005 had directed the documentary William Eggleston in the Real World.
For Now was published to coincide with a major retrospective, William Eggleston: Democratic Camera – Photographs and Video, 1961-2008, which showed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In Almereyda’s words:
‘William Eggleston’s photographs are always about looking. They distill a sense of heightened attention–alertness, anticipation, awe–from fragments of ordinary, unmanipulated reality. But the “ordinary” in Eggleston is often charged with an air of mystery and menace, a Halloween atmosphere leaking into every season he records. A quality of vulnerability and play converges with unease, dread, the possibility of mayhem.
The selection is tidier, more self-contained, than I first expected–a bouquet brought back from an archival jungle. Most of the pictures feature people, and many of the subjects are the photographer’s blood relations and close friends. The emotional temperature is at once tender and aloof, extending to images of strangers in parking lots and suburban yards, which is aligned with Eggleston’s enduring fascination with frayed commercial spaces, cars, signs, cracked sidewalks, light bulbs, bricks, clouds, with rural porches, broken fences, spilled trash, ditches, puddles, architectural gaps and divides–the spaces between spaces, the mundane, the makeshift, all the fragmentary raw proofs of civilization as a perishable human construction that, nevertheless, provide subject matter for vibrant photographs. When I reviewed a rough layout with Bill, he was pleased to see so many pictures he had clean forgotten about. He offered his approval alongside a bemused comment that the book comes close to being a family album.’