color photography is vulgar

You know whose birthday it is? Today, the 27th day of July–whose birthday? It’s okay if you don’t know, on account of I’m going to tell you.

It’s the birthday of William Joseph Eggleston. You know, the photographer? The guy who took black-and-white art photography by the neck, wrestled it to the ground, and rubbed its face in bright, bright color. Lurid color. William Eggleston. Bill. Born in that fine Southern city of Memphis, Tennessee. 1939. Seventy-five years old today.

Yeah, he’s still alive. His son, Winston, told The New Yorker magazine that Eggleston will likely spend the day “playing Bach sonatas on his recently installed Bösendorfer piano.” Yeah. Maybe. Or maybe that’s just the sort of thing a son would tell The New Yorker magazine, because he didn’t want to say his dad might just spend the day slowly sipping bourbon and looking out the window at Overton Park in Memphis, wondering how the hell he could possibly be seventy-five years old;

He pissed off a lot of important photography folks, Bill Eggleston. Folks like Walker Evans, who didn’t like color photography. Walker Evans, whose quest was to make photographs that were “literate, authoritative, transcendent” (which he did, by the way, nobody can say Evans was anything less than literate and authoritative). But the man just didn’t like color.

“There are four simple words on the matter, which must be whispered: Color photography is vulgar.”

He was authoritative on that, no mistake. Eggleston, though, liked vulgar color. And he didn’t give a rat’s ass about being authoritative or transcendent. He had–and probably still has–a subversive eye. “I am at war with the obvious,” Eggleston once said. Which, given the vivid color of his photography, sounds an awful lot like bullshit. But it’s not.

I wrote about Eggleston’s war with the obvious half a decade ago, and I’m just too lazy to spend the time trying to find a way to repeat it using different words. You can read it if you’re interested. Or just trust me–when Eggleston said he was at war with the obvious, he was straight up telling the truth.

Eggleston at a piano (photo by Juergen Teller)

Eggleston at a piano (photo by Juergen Teller)

I’m hoping Eggleston has himself a happy birthday. I’m hoping he really does play some Bach on his fancy piano. And sips some bourbon. And maybe spends some time outside. It would be cool if he shot some photos today, but if he doesn’t…well, he’s taken his share. It’s okay if he leaves the camera at home.

(By the way, that photo above–the one by Juergen Teller? It’s a damned fine photo. I like it a lot. But it’s pretty obvious. Teller does good work, but he’s no William Joseph Eggleston, is he.)

6 thoughts on “color photography is vulgar

  1. I have yet to see the greatness of his photography, colour or otherwise, but he is definitely the Sex Pistols for colour photography. his photography is/was the right tool for this fight against the prevailing wisdom against colour photography as an art form.
    there is no way in my mind that S. Leiter, nor E. Haas, could take on the establishment as the personality is what matters in these regards… arm with a competent demonstration of the medium. in a world where evidence is pummeled into a proof, the mighty BW photos of the days offered a powerful adversary, and being (vocally) indignant is but one of the traits required.

    Liked by 1 person

    • There’s a sort of wabi-sabi of the American Deep South to Eggleston’s work that speaks to me. Faulkner wrote ‘The past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past,” and that sentiment seems attached to a LOT of Eggleston’s work. I think that’s what makes his photography powerful, and color is an essential component of that. Whether it’s garish or faded or bright or weathered, his use of color is saturated with a deep sense of loss and tragic (and maybe deserved) inevitability.

      At least that’s how it strikes me.


  2. Pingback: JSP Visual Week In Review | 81.01.14 | JerseyStyle Photography

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