The National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) is the gallery that just keeps on giving. Unwilling to rest on their laurels following the recent success of the David Hockney Current exhibition, the gallery present the NGV Festival of Photography during March and April. A headline of the festival is a showing of William Eggleston Portraits.
An American, William Eggleston is one of the masters of 20th century photography, and the exhibition comprises more than 100 photographs, both colour and black and white, of images taken by Eggleston during the course of his lengthy career, which continues to this day.
William Eggleston Portraits is an exhibition celebrating the photographs Eggleston has taken of friends, musicians, actors, strangers he encountered on the street, and of his family, since all the way back in 1957, when he first picked up a camera.
The names of many subjects, who have until now chosen to remain anonymous, are revealed for the first time.
‘The work of William Eggleston has made an indelible impact of the medium of photography through his groundbreaking and striking use of colour. Eggleston’s images reveal the hidden beauty in our day to day lives and have a powerful, vibrant aesthetic that has influenced many subsequent generations,’ said Tony Ellwood, Director, NGV.
As Mr Ellwood declares, Eggleston made his mark on the world through his colour photography. His breakthrough exhibition ‘Colour Photographs’ held at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York in 1976 brought colour photography into the fore as a legitimate artistic medium. This was the first time an exhibition containing colour photographs by a single artist had gone on display. The response was passionate and it was varied, and began discussions, which continue to this day, about the validity of colour photography as an art form.
Born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1939, William Eggleston grew up in Mississippi, in the deep south of the United States of America. It was during his university years in the late 1950s that a friend gifted him a Leica camera and his interest in photography began to take hold. He initially experimented with black and white photography, and it was not until the mid-1960s that he discovered colour transparency film. By the end of the 1960s, this had become his dominant medium.
During the early 1970s Eggleston discovered dye-transfer printing, which was at the time the ‘Rolls Royce’ of photographic printing. This labour- and time-intensive form of printing resulted in intensely vibrant images with the widest colour gamut and tonal scale of any print, even when compared to today’s inkjet printers.
Unfortunately, Eastman Kodak discontinued production of the materials required for this printing method in 1993, and the process is now consigned to the annals of history. A number of the images in the exhibition have been printed using the dye-transfer process.
Amongst the highlights of the exhibition is a never-before-exhibited photograph of film director, actor and photographer Dennis Hopper and a previously-unseen image of The Clash frontman Joe Strummer.
Also on display is a monumental one and a half metre wide image of the photographer’s uncle, Adyn Schuyler Senior, with his assistant Jasper Staples in Cassidy Bayou, Mississippi.
This image has previously been seen in Eggleston’s Guide (1976), the publication accompanying his first exhibition at MoMA, New York.
Eggleston’s portraits are a fascinating mix of desolate, lonely backgrounds and larger-than-life individuals. The locations of many of these photographs are empty, seemingly lacking in life, but the people captured in the foreground are full of life, and of character, with their clothing of amazing greens and yellows and oranges, all the wonderful hues of the 1970s, in their patterned dresses and funky pantsuits.
These characters go about their everyday lives in everyday places, driving in their freshly polished cars, grabbing a bite to eat, meandering down the street, or merely sitting and staring into the ether. The images are often harsh, at times confronting, but always bold, inviting further contemplation.
Intriguingly, the exhibition includes a number of never-before-seen black and white images, taken in the 1960s in and around Eggleston’s home in Memphis, Tennessee. Eggleston is very much known for his work in colour, and these black and white images pre-date much of his seminal colour photography. These black and white works are, however, no less important, illustrating some equally colourful characters, staring defiantly down the barrel of the camera lens.
William Eggleston, the artist who drew the world’s attention to colour photography, boldly and defiantly, in much the same way his subjects appeared in his photographs, is one of the leaders of 20th century photography. William Eggleston Portraits stands as a great tribute to the man, and whether this exhibition is an introduction to his work or the viewer is instead an experienced art connoisseur, this display is required viewing for all art lovers of Australia.
William Eggleston Portraits comes direct from a recent stint at the National Portrait Gallery in London. The exhibition is organised by the National Portrait Gallery, London, with support from the artist and the Eggleston Artistic Trust and presented by the National Gallery of Victoria.
Belinda McDowall, Special Features, Deputy Editor, The Culture Concept Circle, 2017
17 March – 18 June 2017
180 St Kilda Road, Melbourne, Australia