Editors' pick

William Eggleston: Democratic Camera; Photographs and Video 1961-2008

Photography, Video/Multimedia
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William Eggleston: Democratic Camera; Photographs and Video 1961-2008 photo
Eggleston Artistic Trust. Courtesy Cheim and Read, New York
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Editorial Review

An Eye for the Everyday

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 19, 2009

Like Al Gore and the Internet, William Eggleston is sometimes credited with having "invented" color photography. That at least is how John Szarkowski, the late curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, put it when Szarkowski gave the artist a 1976 solo show at MOMA. Accompanied by the landmark photo book, "William Eggleston's Guide," the exhibition was nevertheless a milestone, as the museum's first one-man showcase -- and catalogue -- dedicated to color photography.

Yes, a little more than 30 years ago, it was still uncommon to consider any photography other than black-and-white art.

You might wander through "William Eggleston: Democratic Camera, Photographs and Video, 1961-2008," which opens tomorrow at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and find that a little hard to believe. Not necessarily that the fine-art world took that long to accept a medium that had been around since the 1860s (and in widespread use by amateurs since the 1940s). Rather, it might strike you as odd that these particular photographs -- several images from "William Eggleston's Guide" are included here -- are the ones that were chosen to break the color barrier.

That's because they seem, in some ways, utterly unexceptional.

Shopping center parking lots. Bags of trash. A half-empty bottle of red Nehi soda on the hood of a car. "I had this notion of what I call a democratic way of looking around," said Eggleston, in a quote that inspired the show's title. "That nothing was more important or less important." There's a random, snapshot aesthetic to Eggleston's art that makes a lot of people think, "I can do that." Several groups on the photo-sharing Web site Flickr are dedicated to pictures that imitate Eggleston's beauty-in-the-mundane style.

But it isn't so easy. Nor is it easy to explain what it is about Eggleston that is exceptional. Spend time with the show, and you may start to feel a growing strangeness just below the surface of the ordinary, a perspective both alien and familiar.

You may also start to recognize certain recurring themes. Despite his insistence that he looked at everything equally, Eggleston had a fascination with a few of the same things over and over, as you will see: guns, cars, bare light bulbs, beds, pretty women and dogs. The filmmaker Michael Almereyda, whose documentary portrait of Eggleston will screen July 9 said that many of the photographs in "William Eggleston's Guide" struck him as if they could have, in fact, been taken by the family dog.

But that's just surface. Beyond these specific subjects, you'll also find a few persistent themes, larger ideas that carry through Eggleston's career and shed light on his work. We've identified six of those themes, with pictures to match, that will provide you with your own road map to Eggleston's world, a guide to help you find your way among what Almereyda calls Eggleston's "mysteries hiding in plain sight."

To view the photos, see the links to "Photos: An Eye for the Everyday" or "Photos: Exploring Eggleston's Themes."