The joy of color: William Eggleston

los_alamos_kI discovered William Eggleston, the iconoclast whose super-saturated prints brought color photography into art world’s mainstream, at the recent show at the Whitney Museum. The retrospective is now at the Corcoran in DC, bringing him back into the spotlight again and giving east-coasters who missed it in New York a second chance to see this wonderful body of work.


What’s joyful about Eggleston’s work? The unexpected hits of color, for starters. In this piece on NPR, Claire O’Neill writes about the transformative power of his color vision:

Although he doesn’t quite understand what people mean when they tell him, “You changed the way I see the world,” the fact remains that he has. Perhaps the living legend is an accidental genius, but before his lurid color prints hit the gallery walls, few people would have found beauty in their own rundown suburban backyards. Whether or not he meant to, and whether or not he cares, Eggleston has taught us to open our eyes and see the wide spectrum of colors around us. He says he doesn’t think much about it. But a few subtle winks and a glimmer in his eye tell me he knows exactly what he’s doing.

The article makes clear this approach was born out of Eggleston’s pure joy at seeing his world in vibrant color. Looking at his photographs, the energy seems to bleed off the print, an irrepressible vitality that stretches beyond the borders and makes each image feel hugely alive. But it also suggests Eggleston has the mischievous spirit of a kind of benign provocateur. Playfully transgressive, his goal is not to destabilize, but simply to liberate art from arbitrary rules that limit us from beauty in our own backyards.


Eggleston’s subjects are not always joyful; indeed, they often have a sort of forlorn or derelict beauty that inspires sad nostalgia rather than joy. Others are wonderfully weird, with an internal tension that asks you to consider joyful aesthetic elements — symbols of childhood, fluffy clouds or cotton candy, holiday motifs—in all their bizarre beauty, almost without emotion.

But regardless of the specific elements featured, to me the body of work as a whole exudes joy, arising as it does from the mind of a man who revels in color. In the audio slide show that accompanies the NPR piece, the final question is, “Do you dream in color?” There is such savory delight in the laugh that punctuates his response: “Oh yes. Wonderful pictures that don’t exist. I would love to print every single one of them. So. . . brilliant.”

From NPR, via tipster-extraordinare: Dad



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