Made in Memphis: William Eggleston’s surreal visions of the American south


On 25 May 1976, an exhibition opened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York that blew apart American photography. Curated by long-term director John Szarkowski, it contained around 75 prints by an artist in his mid-30s based in Memphis, Tennessee, self-taught and barely known outside the in-crowd. His name was William Eggleston.
Unseen William Eggleston portraits to appear in London exhibition
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The reaction was immediate, and incandescent. The Village Voice claimed that “some sort of con had been worked”; the New York Times diagnosed “a case, if not of the blind leading the blind, at least the banal leading the banal”. Eggleston’s affectless, snapshot-like scenes of worn-out plantations and suburban driveways – southern life at its most blandly nondescript – were partly responsible. But what most riled the reviewers was that he had dared to print these images in colour. Colour, as everyone knew, was vulgar, garish, trashy. The New York Times later dubbed the exhibition “the most hated show of the year”.

With impeccable timing, 40 years on, Eggleston returns with another major retrospective at another major museum, the National Portrait Gallery – a sign, perhaps, that Eggleston is now part of the establishment. Colour photography is mainstream; mobile phones and social media have made snapshots the most natural visual language of all. Once reviled, Eggleston himself is now revered, and correspondingly expensive – prints now sell for £350,000-plus.

Yet to encounter his photographs is still to revel in their strange wonder, their droll and sphinx-like resistance to interpretation. Critics falter when they try to place him: a reworker of the Duchampian readymade? A chronicler of southern gothic? Eggleston, forgivably wary of those who presume to pin down his work, prefers to let the pictures do the talking. And what they say remains peculiar enough…continua

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