What makes William Eggleston's ordinary photographs so extraordinary?

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Though they’re presented as portraits, the images in this National Portrait Gallery show aren’t really portraiture. They’re much more ambiguous than that

Martin Gayford


‘Untitled’, c.1971, by William Eggleston

‘Untitled’, c.1971, by William Eggleston

In 1965 William Eggleston took the first colour photograph that, he felt, really succeeded. The location was outside a supermarket in Memphis, Tennessee; the time — to judge from the rich golden light and long shadows — late afternoon. Eggleston’s subject — a young man with a heavily slicked, early Elvis hairstyle stacking trolleys outside the shop — was as ordinary as he could be. But the result was a photographic masterpiece.

It is included in the exhibition William Eggleston: Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery, although, by most definitions, it is not a portrait. Indeed, it is as hard to say just what it is as it is to explain exactly why it is so good.


The catalogue essay by the curator, Phillip Prodger, recounts how the photographer was once pressed to explain a shot of his infant son lying asleep in bed (pictured above). Is this a meditation on childhood, or a commemoration of this boy at a tender age? No, Eggleston insisted, sounding a bit vexed, ‘It’s something more ambiguous than that.’

Complete read at The Spectator.