William Eggleston’s Guide was the first one-man show of colour photographs ever presented at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Museum’s first publication of colour photography. The reception was divided and passionate. The book and show unabashedly forced the art world to deal with colour photography, a medium scarcely taken seriously at the time, and with the vernacular content of a body of photographs that could have been but definitely weren’t some average person’s Instamatic pictures from the family album. These photographs heralded a new mastery of the use of colour as an integral element of photographic composition. Bound in a textured cover inset with a photograph of a tricycle and stamped with yearbook-style gold lettering, the Guide contained 48 images edited down from 375 shot between 1969 and 1971 and displayed a deceptively casual, actually superrefined look at the surrounding world.
The first look through this book and I found myself saying “I could have taken that” a lot. Of course, the fact is, I wouldn’t have. Which is far more to the point. There is a deceptive snapshot feel to Eggleston’s work in this book but repeated viewings bring each shot more to life. I can’t say I find every shot here universally great, sometimes the subjects aren’t as engaging as others, but all the shots have the same everyday pathos and a great feel to the colours.
These are not photos that make you go ‘wow’ on first look. There is not the drama of Ansel Adams, the “Oooh, look at that” of Yann Arthus Bertrand, you won’t see them on calendars or ‘art’ prints (although you can get the trike ). This is all about looking for something interesting in the mundane. A really difficult thing to pull off, but Eggleston seems to manage it effortlessly. For me, what lifts these photos above just interesting is the colours. I imagine I’d need a barrage of Photoshop to get close to how these look (and obviously still fail).
This is obviously a long discussion to be had based on photography as art (and colour photography specifically) but it’s not my intention to get into that kind of thing. These reviews are intended to give a guide as to whether or not you should buy a book. I happen to really like Eggleston, the photos are interesting. They’re not striking or beautiful and if you show the book to 10 people, 8 of them will say “Eh?” – but if you’re like me and you take photos and want to train your eye further. This is definitely a good way to do it. A lot of the photos break a lot of the standard rules and therefore will steer you away from taking photos that look like everyone elses.
This book is a brief but compelling introduction to Eggleston’s work and it does set you on the road of seeking out more. And having a much closer look at boring things.