Photographer William Eggleston pioneered use of colour at MOMA

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William Eggleston’s Greenwood, Mississippi (1973). Collection National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

William Eggleston’s Greenwood, Mississippi (1973). Collection National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

In May 1976, a photography exhibition opened at New York’s Museum of Modern Art that The New York Times described as the “most hated show of the year” and The Village Voice as “some sort of con”.

The principal reason for all the vitriol? The photographer, William Eggleston, had the audacity to print his images in colour.

Looking back, it may seem ludicrous there was such contempt for colour photography. However, at the time black-and-white was the prevailing aesthetic and colour photography was the realm of advertising. Furthermore, influential photographer Walker Evans had described colour as “vulgar”.

Despite the negative response, that MoMA exhibition is considered the moment when colour photography became an art form. With just one exhibition, Eggleston managed to show how the use of saturated colour could transcend its commercial origins. He suddenly made colour legitimate and he is often described as the greatest colourist in photographic history.

But colour wasn’t the critics’ only gripe. Eggleston was also lampooned for his choice of ordinary, nondescript subjects, such as a child’s tricycle, a man on a phone and a woman in curlers. He once famously remarked that “I’ve been photographing democratically” to sum up his approach. He also documented his personal life: his wife and children, but also the drug and alcohol-fuelled parties with musicians and artists, and his long-term lovers, such as Viva, one of Andy Warhol’s “superstars”. He is also renowned for taking only one photo of any subject, never a second shot.

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