Exhibition visit: William Eggleston ‘Portraits’ at the National Portrait Gallery, London

Previously reviewing William Eggleston (see here) as part of a wider focus on the impact of colour photography I have always respected his work but just had n’t appreciated the true of magnitude of his art. As we progress in our creative journey our critical understanding becomes more intuitive and we can gain a more effective framework from which to appreciate the exhibition.

As all the major reviews concluded William Eggleston is n’t necessarily known for his portraiture as the huge contribution that he has made to the development of colour photography and his interpretation of American suburbia and life in general overshadow the significant interest that Eggleston had in featuring and portraying people. But this exhibition shows that his work was much more complete than perhaps even he has been given credit for in this respect.

There are approximately 100 images of both black and white and colour portraits of varying sizes from experimental 6×4 images to traditional large-format gallery wall style classics detailing a career last over 30 years.

portrait woman chain W egg

Figure 1: Untitled, William Eggleston 1969-71

What I immediately noticed in the exhibition was just how many variations there were in how Eggleston framed his subjects. In today’s world of computer screen and TV screen vision the world is seen through a landscape view. Eggleston’s use of the portrait view was really interesting and I will try to develop this into my own work going forward.

The subjects of William Eggleston’s images are varied including everybody from close contacts, family and friends through to strangers on the streets of Memphis the area that the majority of Eggleston’s career centred around.

Equally noticeable is the variety of locations that Eggleston made images around; gas stations, offices, hotel rooms, diners, airports, people crossing the road, in their own homes and garages, lying down in fields, parked down dusty farm lanes. Some subjects are posed, some are candid shots and clearly without their subjects’ prior permission; all captured with a range of technical considerations whether that be considerations of lighting, the time of day or depth of field.

What was most significant from this exhibition was the sheer coherence of such wide-ranging and varied collection of images taken over several decades representing a true body of work. Eggleston has his personal mark across every image and it was truly fantastic to make this realisation.

Lots of the images I had n’t seen before although there were plenty of classic Eggleston compositions such as the older woman sitting in the garden on the easy couch occupying centre stage in the middle of one the gallery end walls. The subject was Devoe Money from Jackson, Mississippi who was a distanced relative to Eggleston’s mother. Accompanying the image was a short caption of a personal text taken from William Eggleston really illuminating the human element within the image.

Devoe Money W Egg

Figure 2: Untitled, William Eggleston (1970)

The text read, “She was a swell, wonderful person, very smart too, she was not a rich lady. She did n’t inherit a lot, I remember she was active in the little theatre but there’s no money in that.” (1970).

A image that I have seen many times before in books and on the internet was seen in a completely different light when hung as a large-scale picture in a major gallery in all of it’s glory and completely brought to life by a short 35 word text caption.

I truly enjoyed seeing this picture with the natural sunlight casting shadows and illuminating deep saturated colours, a light reflection shown in the spectacles of Devoe Money. Eggleston’s use of depth of field completely throwing out the background detail focussing the viewer’s eye centrally on the subject, the picture was so perfect it was inspiring. When I have seen this image before I had n’t really given it a second look but now I felt that Devoe Money could be one of my own mother’s distant relatives.

Martha W Egg

Figure 3: Untitled, William Eggleston, (circa 1975)

Another classic picture shown was the untitled image of Marcia Hare, Memhis, Tennessee c1975; the famous picture of the young woman lying in the grass where Eggleston’s use of depth of field effectively throws the entire scene out of focus except the young woman’s head and shoulders. The picture demonstrates a fantastic complexity in what was a very simple situation.

Throughout the exhibition there are so many examples where Eggleston just seems to make the perfect decision which of course is the outcome of complete technical mastery coupled with genuine vision which when brought together create works of significant art.

There is also an excellent image taken in 1973 of Eggleston’s wife Rosa who is lying asleep on the bed with the small black and white TV left showing a programme in the corner of the room. Rosa is under a yellow duvet colour which matches the yellow shoe-holder which is fixed to the inside of a door that presumably Eggelston has left open so that it can take up the perfectly positioned space in the frame 1/3 in from the left-hand border side; it’s just so perfect! This just emphasised that we must always strive for interest and improvement in our own compositions.

William Eggleston’s influence is truly vast and references of his work can be found in many significant artists from the 1970s and 1980s whether they be Stephen Shore or individuals from other mediums such as film director David Lynch; The interpretations and subject matter that Eggleston chose are now so familiar to us as his approach became stylised to the point that it became the de facto iconic mass media image of everyday America. This can be seen in the iconic image below of his uncle pictured with his assistant. The image appears as a commentary on class and race in America but seems to be so familiar that it could be  frozen from any number of cinema films from the period.

uncle w egg

Figure 4: Untitled William Eggleston (1976)

Featuring the portraits of William Eggleston gave a fresh dimension to an already truly respected photographer who seems to have had to work harder for his reputation than other photographers of his generation. This was perhaps the first major sole exhibition that I have attended of one of the genuinely influential photographers and the impact has been marked in terms of my own motivation to improve my own standards.

Finally having started to think a lot more about the presentation of work it was interesting to note the hanging arrangements which avoided a standard linear presentation by mixing and varying the proximity and positioning of images within the confines of the gallery wall.

This made for a fluid interpretation of the work as the eye was drawn to specific images before the brain switched back to the whole cluster and the presentation of the wall as a whole. The images were mounted and hung in white-coated frames which looked very minimalist against the white gallery wall giving the image it’s maximum impact. The positioning of the lighting I assumed was quite standard set from above so as to avoid glare on the glass of the framed images.


Eggleston, W (1971), William Eggleston’s Guide. Exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, (2007) New York.

William Eggleston Portraits exhibition (2016) at the National Portrait Gallery, London can be seen online at: http://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/eggleston/exhibition.php

List of images

All images were taken between 1969 and 1976 and are untitled, by Eggleston, W

Figure 1: http://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/late-shift-1/in-conversation-29092016.php

Figure 2: http://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/eggleston/exhibition.php

Figure 3: http://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/eggleston/exhibition.php

Figure 4: http://www.americansuburbx.com/artists/william-eggleston

(All images accessed 29 August 2016)










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