William Eggleston, American master of contemporary colour photography, is not known for his portraits. Hailed for his ability to find ‘beauty in the everyday’, ordering the chaos of the banal into compositionally appetising colour prints, his most famous works focus on the bells and whistles of Deep South Americana: gas stations, cigarette machines, Pepsi bottles. In this new exhibition William Eggleston Portraits, at London’s National Portrait Gallery until 23 October, his attention to people is given its most comprehensive airing yet.
Over 100 prints are being displayed, ranging from his early black and white nightclub portraits in Memphis, to images of friends, family, and self portraits.
At the exhibition, we are reminded that Eggleston is, above all, a master of colour and form; it is not necessarily the personalities recorded which compel, but the shapes that Eggleston captures, the way subtle tones of hair or skin colour buzz against a patterned wallpaper, a shock of sunlight bursting across a cheek. His portraits are visually pleasing and feel complete as narratives: they don’t seem to invite further questions about their subjects in the way that, say, an Arbus photograph does. Eggleston’s attention feels like that of a painter: he artfully arranges the elements within a frame, and the story ends with the photograph hanging on the wall.
A joy of being at the show is the way his influence is so traceable through the selected works: a subtly overexposed image of a girl in a floral dress lying on some grass is a clear visual directive for Juergen Teller’s Marc Jacobs campaigns, for example, while his self portraits are uncannily indistinguishable from the album cover aesthetic of today: grainy, lo-fi, personable snaps which, viewed almost 50 years on, seem almost impossibly modern. Eggleston’s influence is unavoidable.
The show itself is well-hung, nicely lit, and not overwhelmingly large. For somebody unfamiliar with his work, it provides a neat way in, spanning decades of his output, and for the Eggleston fan it is an unconventional and interesting selection. Phillip Prodger, Head of Photographs at the National Portrait Gallery and curator of the show, notes the Eggleston photograph’s ability to “get deep under the skin and linger in the imagination”, and this exhibition is fine evidence of just that.
All photographs (C) William Eggleston, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.