I happen to stumble on a photograph called Greenwood Mississippi, widely known as The Red Ceiling following an hour badly spent. I had spent the previous hour looking at the ceiling amidst the banal setting of different objects in my home. A few minutes later, the image, I have had stumbled upon, opened an unseen world in me. The image was both formerly beautiful and unsettling, like the creeping unease of a Hitchcock film. In the beginning, the photograph disconcerted me, then caught me and besotted me in the most mundanely beautiful way.

William Eggleston was born in Memphis, Tennessee, where he lives up till now. The son of a wealthy cotton plantation owner. The young Eggleston loved music but somewhat remained directionless failing to graduate from any one school. It was in school where a friend gave him a Leica, and soon after, he started freezing moments. The young William wondered how to continue his art living in a place where everything was so ugly. To this, a great friend of him answered, ‘So photograph the ugly stuff’. Almost like an epiphany, William took his advice and started finding beauty in ugly pieces of stuff, in the years in which American culture was enjoying a peak in consumption that has started timidly after the Second World War. Supermarkets, gas stations, mundane entertainment, automobiles, diners, and malls started multiplying like mushrooms in the United States, with the Perfectly banal, and Perfectly obvious, that Eggleston, made the camera see democratically.

Black and White is an updated and expanded edition of William Eggleston's Before Color, Steidl, 2012)
Black and White is an updated and expanded edition of William Eggleston's Before Color, Steidl, 2012)

Black and White is an updated and expanded edition of William Eggleston’s Before Color, Steidl, 2012

In the late 1950s, Eggleston wandered around the suburbs of Memphis shooting whatever caught his eye on 35mm black and white film. Usually, people aware or unaware of the camera’s gaze and places. Fascinated by Cartier Bresson, Eggleston had declared at the time ‘I couldn’t imagine doing anything more than making a perfect fake Cartier-Bresson’. The image on the left somewhat carries a touch of Cartier Bresson’s search for a decisive moment. Though, this is quite an Egglestonian decisive moment. Interestingly, what caught my eye, the right image does totes an Edward Hopperesque association. What is more interesting to me, given a deeper look, on the series of images made during the time, in black and whites, shows the beginning of a style. The first examples of Eggleston’s now-famous democratic gaze: everything, even the banalest looking object is given equal importance in the unfolding visual narrative.

Black and White is an updated and expanded edition of William Eggleston's Before Color, Steidl, 2012)
Black and White is an updated and expanded edition of William Eggleston's Before Color, Steidl, 2012)

Black and White is an updated and expanded edition of William Eggleston’s Before Color, Steidl, 2012

Eggleston made his camera see lone figures, a coca-cola bottle standing aimlessly on a cafe table. In another, Eggleston freeze-frames an American car washing through the teeming southern rain, freezing it brilliantly, between two striped roadside umbrellas. In the early 60s, American culture has started enjoying a peak in consumption which has started timidly after the Second World War. Meanwhile, Eggleston, who was making black and whites, had begun adventuring in color.

(Untitled, 1965, Memphis, Tennessee)by William Eggleston, n.d Wilson Centre for Photography ©Eggleston Artistic Trust)

Untitled, 1965, Memphis, Tennessee)by William Eggleston, n.d Wilson Centre for Photography ©Eggleston Artistic Trust

Untitled (Memphis) is Eggleston’s first color negative. This image was made in the early days of him experimenting with color. As his wife Rosa Eggleston explains, ‘We were surrounded everywhere by this plethora of shopping centres and ugly stuff. And this is what Bill started photographing’. Here, Eggleston captures the boy’s ritualistic act of pushing a chain of empty shopping carts into the store. Slightly tilted, the teenage boy’s left arm registers the warm afternoon light, casting a shadow on the wall of the store. In the background, a well-dressed woman walks towards the store and the boy with the carts. For Eggleston, there is just as much beauty and interest in the everyday and ordinary as in a photo of something extraordinary. Eggleston calls this the democratic method of photography and explains that ‘it is the idea that one could treat the Lincoln Memorial and an anonymous street corner with the same amount of care, and the resulting two images would be equal, even though one place is a monument and other is a place you might like to forget’. The image of this teenage boy moves beyond the banal into the realm of monumental, because of the tremendous effort put together into orchestrating life down to the most menial task.

The image is part of the book called William Eggleston's Guide. The first publication of colour photography by Musuem of Modern Art, New York

The image is part of the book called William Eggleston’s Guide. The first publication of colour photography by Museum of Modern Art, New York

In the images made by Eggleston, the obvious is not overlooked. To support, what I have just said, another such image is the tricycle, monumental in scale. Eggleston makes this image interesting by choosing a low angle. Making the tricycle look like a child’s toy, dwarfing the houses in the background. When I say the obvious is not overlooked, I mean, with a closer inspection, the subtler things become apparent, like the rust on the handlebars, a dead patch of grass behind it, the car parked in the garage in one of the houses seen between wheels of the tricycle, the soft blue hues of the sky.

Untitled by William Eggleston ©Eggleston Artistic Trust

Untitled by William Eggleston ©Eggleston Artistic Trust

William arrived in Manhattan in 1967 with a suitcase filled with color slides and prints taken around Mississippi Delta. They were ordinary scenes of the American South, all rendered in what would eventually become his iconic high chroma and saturated hues. In New York, Eggleston made friends with fellow photographers, Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand, and Lee Friedlander, who encouraged him to show his work to John Szarkowski. As the Museum of Modern Art’s director of photography, Szarkowski had a reputation of taking risks on artists. William Eggleston was decidedly a risk. The Memphis born self-taught photographer was making images in color when the only photographs considered to be art were in black and whites. Color photography was reserved for punchy advertisement campaigns, not fine art.

William Eggleston, Untitled, 1974 Credit: © Eggleston Artistic Trust/Courtesy Eggleston Artistic Trust and David Zwirner)

William Eggleston, Untitled, 1974   Credit: © Eggleston Artistic Trust/Courtesy Eggleston Artistic Trust and David Zwirner

In May 1976, Eggleston made his Moma debut with a show of 75 prints, titled ‘William Eggleston’s Guide’. Before this show dedicated to color, critics appalled when Stephen Shore mounted a solo show of color photographs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1971. Color photography’s mainstream acceptance still faced a barrier. But, where other photographers had tried varying success, Eggleston wielded a hammer.

Greenwood, Mississippi, better known as The Red Ceiling by William Eggleston

Greenwood, Mississippi, better known as The Red Ceiling by William Eggleston

Greenwood Mississippi (1973) better known as The Red Ceiling, showing a cross of white cables leading to a bare lightbulb. The color red gives an erotic association with the interior space, which is echoed by the poster of a diagram showing different sexual positions. The poster’s depiction of interlocked bodies might even be seen as giving suggestive connotations to the cluster of little plugs drawing electricity from the cable that lights the bare bulb.

Untitled,(T.C.Boring, Greenwood, Mississippi) by William Eggleston

Untitled,(T.C.Boring, Greenwood, Mississippi) by William Eggleston

Untitled ©Eggleston Artistic Trust

Untitled © Eggleston Artistic Trust 

The house in the photograph belonged to a man named T.C.Boring, a dentist born and raised in Greenwood, whom Eggleston has described as the best friend he ever had in the world. In the small house on MacArthur Avenue, Boring had constructed a counter-culture all to himself. He painted the master bedroom a dark red. The image on the left shows, Boring, standing in the red room. Eggleston says “T.C preferred staying naked”. The living room largely lacked furniture, while the rest of the house was filled with broken appliances and junk. Boring’s association with drugs turned life into turmoil. On a Friday night, Boring was murdered by an axe, and his house was burned. The murder remained a mystery. When asked about the image, Eggleston says “Brenda, T.C and I were the three people who were lying in bed when I took that picture. We were having a nice time, talking about this and that, talking nonsense. It was a big bed. And I remember one split second I looked up. I thought that’s a great picture. And then I took the picture. After that, I don’t know what happened “ In the other image, on the right, T.C hugs Eggleston, as they are frozen for a minute fraction of a second. What once was a house, blood and flesh, quietly settles in a photograph.

Untitled, 1969 – 70, (the artist’s uncle, Ayden Schuyler Senior, with Jasper Staples, in Cassidy Bayou, Summer, Mississippi) by William Eggleston © Eggleston Artistic Trust

Untitled, 1969 – 70, (the artist’s uncle, Ayden Schuyler Senior, with Jasper Staples, in Cassidy Bayou, Summer, Mississippi) by William Eggleston ©Eggleston Artistic Trust

The above image depicts, Eggleston’s uncle, Adyn Schuyler Sr. and Jasper, a longtime family servant who helped raise Eggleston. The mimicry between the men’s stances creates a sense of intimacy between them. As Eggleston puts it, ‘It’s like they’ve been together for so long that they have started standing the same way”. Eggleston redefined banality, as the very phenomenon, acquired an entirely new significance. Eggleston’s hallmark ability to find emotional resonance in the ordinary has become a polestar for many photographers and filmmakers since. “It took a long time for people to understand William Eggleston,” said British photographer Martin Parr, one of the countless photographers who has found inspiration in the Memphis artist’s work.

Still images from The Virgin Suicides directed by Sofia Coppola
Still images from The Virgin Suicides directed by Sofia Coppola

Still images from The Virgin Suicides directed by Sofia Coppola 

Eggleston’s influence on the silver screen is layered in ordinary everyday life, moments of joy, secrets, banishment, and strong independent-mindedness. In the last few minutes of Sophia Coppola’s Virgin Suicides, a loss is portrayed beautifully. The Lisbon girls have banished their parents by taking their own lives. The ‘Everyday’ course of the house changes, and, not to forget, the house is sold at the end of the film, passed to new keepers, like a photograph going from one hand to another.

Still image from American Beauty directed by Sam Mendes

Still image from American Beauty directed by Sam Mendes

In American Beauty, Ricky’s video of the dancing plastic bag, the film’s central icon of beauty, as epitomized in this scene, shows an eccentric value present everywhere but seems to come out of nowhere. Ricky’s other encounters with beauty are similarly quotidian and similarly fatal, in a dead bird, in an old woman frozen on the curb, and in the sadness of the girl next door. Beauty is at once eschatologically and ontologically ultimate, when he says, as his voiceover plunges in, “sometimes there is no much beauty in the world I feel I can’t take it…and my heart is going to cave in”. Beauty, if seen as, simply a way of seeing the world clearly, apart from what we would make of it. In the film, Ricky casts himself as a professional observer, a student of other people’s life. He finds a kind of freedom is through the view-finder of his video camera.

Untitled by William Eggleston ©Eggleston Artistic Trust
Untitled by William Eggleston ©Eggleston Artistic Trust

Untitled by William Eggleston ©Eggleston Artistic Trust

The similarity between Eggleston’s black and whites, and color, feels like a memory. The images are extremely familiar and memorable. It feels like the tales our elders told us as if Eggleston’s only governing criterion was to photograph every scene he encountered that felt like a déjå Vu. William Eggleston’s images give a feeling of absence, they depict ‘Life Today’. When this absence becomes a presence, he captures people with the same familiarity. Many a time, the characters haven’t realized that they have been photographed on their daily chores. The images made by the Memphis born, self-taught photographer, shows us moments of our everyday life that are overlooked, lost or Scenes we don’t care to see until its a photograph. It is like a war with the obvious, in Eggleston’s soft-spoken voice.

As a Ch’an poem puts it,
“Sitting quietly, doing nothing
Spring comes and the grass grows by itself.”

References
Siddhanta Goswami
Siddhanta Goswami
Siddhanta Goswami considers himself as an observer working with text, still images and motion images. Siddhanta’s documented work ‘Abakase Dekha’ has been published in Private Photo Magazine. In 2018, he covered a story for National Geographic. ‘Is It Winter Already?’ is Siddhanta’s debut short film, as a writer/director, which was shown in CIFF Sydney Australia, Dhaka International Film Festival, Jadavpur Photo Fest and Polyphony International Photo Festival. Siddhanta is working on his debut feature film.
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