As if inflicted by a twitch, he snaps and moves on. A second time, the Leica hooks onto his eye in a roaming contraption of metal and flesh, halts at the underbelly of a lorry, snap, he straightens up and moves on. Sometimes he doesn’t even bring camera to eye, firing instead with some remoteness to his body, as if directing an antenna.

Eggleston, W Southern Suite 1981

In this way, William Eggleston grazes his hometown of Memphis, photographing the quotidian: liquor stores, light fittings and the contents of freezers. ‘Democratic’ is an adjective he uses to describe his approach. Succeeding his first show at MoMA in 1976, a New York Times journalist criticised his photographs as ‘perfectly banal’. While the phrase might at first appear a disparaging oxymoron, in fact it is one of the most accurate complements to give him.
The oxymoron is appropriate for Eggleston, his practice comprising several. His approach is disciplined yet fluid: he takes one photograph of one subject and moves on, he rarely titles his pictures, and they give little themselves by way of explanation. Rather, they emit the uncanny in saturated, unremitting colour. He enjoys cameras as he does guns, for their engineering and precision. Sontag’s likening of photography to ‘shootng’ also seems relevant, Eggleston describing his images as ‘shotgun pictures’. But while this may suggest he and his Leica are outsiders capturing a subject, the photographs tell another story. Gentle, fleeting portraits seem to happen serendipitously, his subjects more relaxed than Diane Arbus’. The Guide is a collection of particularly personal images that includes Eggleston’s meals, family and Memphis life. Cartier-Bresson’s combination of the fleeting and geometric is an influence here.

Eggleston, W London 1986

Sometimes odd things happen at the edges of Eggleston’s pictures, and others, subjects are exiting blurs. This element, in combination with the photographs’ dye-transfer colour traditionally associated with advertisement (and later holiday snaps), lends an element of the amateur to the images. Yet the moment we think this, their striking composition and vivid light raise them into the realm of masterpieces. The chiaroscuro often evident is either the intense sunlight of the South, or when interior, Eggleston’s use of electric light and flash. An example of the latter is one of his most famous images, a vivid red ceiling with white wires scoring it diagonally and intersecting at a bulb in the middle. Eggleston has said that red is at war with other colours. The mood here is certainly threatening, and Lynch’s Blue Velvet comes to mind, a film in which suburbia has an alarming menace behind its porch-doors. In Eggleston’s image, the red glow lights an all-nighter drug binge. Or the scene of a murder.

Eggleston, W Greenwood, Mississippi 1973

Experimenting with the moving-image in association with Warhol, Eggleston captured friends and drinkers at bars in a continuous, single-take film (Stranded in Canton, 1973-4) that reels boredom and voyeurism into one. Eggleston says they simply depict part of his life, blurring the art/ life distinction, as do his still photographs. In this way, suburbia, the ugly and mundane are often flung into states of beauty. A twitch of metal and flesh, and they’re flung into states of beauty.

Eggleston, W Southern Suite 1981

Eggleston, W Untitled 1971

Eggleston, W Untitled 1980

Eggleston, W New Orleans 1988

Eggleston, W Washington D.C 1990