I first heard about William Eggleston through my good friend and talented street photographer Charlie Kirk about a year and a half ago. He mentioned that he just purchased a copy of “Chromes” by William Eggleston– and that it was one of his favorite photographic books. I asked Charlie what the book was, and he mentioned it was a 3-set book published by Steidl (I would argue the best publisher in the world) with some of the loveliest color photographs that, printed in the book, look more like fine art prints than just reproductions.
I was very excited to hear this, as I was getting more and more interested in color. I searched it instantly on Amazon, and was taken back that it cost ~300 USD. I have never spent more than 100 USD on a photo book, and the thought of spending so much was quite daunting.
However I thought to myself: if I really wanted to learn more about color photography I would make the investment. Also the book was actually three books in total, so it would be around ~100 USD per book. And not only that, but if the prints were really as good as Charlie said it was, it would be like getting 364 prints for a total of less than 1 USD a print. I also figured that worst case if I hated the book, I could always always return it.
I then held my breath, put it on my credit card, and ordered it. The book then came to my doorstep a few days later, and I was surprised how massive it was. It came in a lovely cardboard box, and with a hard-shelled spine that held all three books inside. Like a giddy schoolboy, I ripped it open (gently) and uncovered the books.
The first feeling I experienced was the touch of the books. They were so soft, well-put together, and you can see that it was a quality product. When I opened the book, I loved the texture of the thick paper, and the colors of the book absolutely blew my mind. The deep crimson reds, the quixotic purples, and the organic greens.
But I was quite disappointed.
I didn’t “get” the photographs. What was Eggleston photographing a bunch of random stuff for? His photos seemed to be like a bunch of random snapshots, photographed without much thought or conviction. Just the ordinary and banal things of everyday life. I wanted to punch myself in the gut for spending 300 USD for a photographic book collection that I had no interest in.
I then sent Charlie a message and asked him why he enjoyed Chromes, and that I was a bit disappointed. I remember him telling me simply, “The colors are just lovely.” He didn’t say much after that.
Determined, I then went back to Chromes and took a look at the colors, carefully and took my time. The first time I looked at Chromes, I simply flipped through each page, staring at each photograph for less than a second. But this time, I boiled a nice cup of coffee, sat down on a lazy Sunday afternoon, and actually took my time to look and analyze each photograph.
What I found astonished me.
I soon started to appreciate Eggleston’s vision. What I initially thought were stupid photographs of ordinary, boring, stuff– was exactly what he was getting at. He wasn’t interested in photographing “decisive moments” like Cartier-Bresson nor was he interested in capturing esoteric characters or extraordinary moments. He was all about finding the beauty in the mundane.
Not only that, but like Charlie said– the colors are absolutely mind-blowing. The book “Chromes” is a compilation of his unpublished color slide-film Kodachrome photographs (and some with Ektachrome and Afghachrome) and the colors just pop out at you. They are so vivid, full of life, and you can see that Eggleston has a very good understanding of color theory. His photographs aren’t just of random colors, but there is a very subtle form of harmony in his photographs. For example, many of his photographs have primarily warm tones in the background (like red, orange, or yellow)– yet his subject of interest may be of a very cold color (blue, green, or violet) which pop at you.
Not only that, but most of the photographs presented in the book were shot in brilliant light. The majority of his photos were taken during “golden hour”
when the light is the softest at either sunrise or sunset. Therefore the images gleam with warmth and beauty– which really made me calm down and appreciate the nature of his photos.
I am now a huge William Eggleston fan. I love his philosophies when it comes to photographing such as his democratic approach, how he finds the beauty in the mundane, and his sharp eye for finding fascinating color combinations. Most of his photos don’t have people in them, but I think that sometimes photographs are even more interesting without them anyways. The simple coca-cola on a hood of an old Ford at sunset can almost seem more alive than a real person.
For this article I wanted to share some of my personal take-away points from the work of Eggleston. I know that Eggleston himself may not agree with a lot of what I am going to write, but this is something personal to me. I hope you will gain some insights about Eggleston’s work through my experiences as well:
1. Photograph democratically
As street photographers, we tend to gravitate towards finding the extraordinary moments in life. We want to find the craziest-looking characters, the strangest gestures, and moments that seem quite surreal.
However Eggleston took this convention and flipped it on his head. He wasn’t interested in the crazy and odd things in life. Rather, he was drawn to the everyday, boring, and the banal– and wanted to show the inherent beauty of things that we often overlook.
How did Eggleston begin photographing ordinary things, whereas all the other photographers of his time were documenting beautiful landscapes, fine art, and notable events all around the world?
I think we all have a difficult time finding things of interest when it comes to shooting street photography. We feel obliged to photograph what is beautiful and extraordinary. But in the documentary published by the BBC: “William Eggleston: Imagine” his wife Rosa Eggleston, shared this story of how Eggleston was inspired to first start photographing “ugly stuff”:
“Bill at one time said to his great, highly respected friend: well, what am I going to photograph? Everything here is so ugly.’ And our friend said, ‘Photograph the ugly stuff.’ Well we were surrounded everywhere by this plethora of shopping centers and ugly stuff. And that is really initially what he started photographing.”
What Eggleston was photographing was very much against the tradition and the norm of photography at the time. Eggleston wasn’t so interested in photographing “art photography”
but what simply interested him:
“We all started to think about it this way: none of us was interested in what–back then, what was considered art photography, which was very large large-negative landscapes like Ansel Adams.”
The beauty of Eggleston’s approach is the fact that he photographs “democratically”
and treats all objects as equal. He won’t look at a sunset and think it is any more special than a hairdryer, or even a dirty toilet filled with piss.
In the documentary, Martin Parr shares his thoughts on Eggleston’s approach
especially how he can create powerful photos of “nothing”:
“He takes very ordinary situations and can create very powerful pictures out of almost nothing. And therefore he is not relying particularly on the ultimate decorative thing like a nice sunset—or the incredible nostalgia that you will often see in contemporary practice. I would say he is kind of beyond that if you would like, he is almost photographing on the gap of everything else.”
Realize that in street photography, you don’t always have to capture the extraordinary things in life. Often times the ordinary and the banal can be the most interesting.
Perhaps an exercise can be this (like how Eggleston started off): Instead of trying to photograph the beautiful things in everyday life, photograph the ugly stuff. Go against the grain, against the norms, and it will help your work be more interesting and stand out.
2. Photograph your hometown
Eggleston has spent the last 50 years documenting his hometown of Memphis, Tennessee. I have never been to Memphis, but I heard it is quite a boring place. This is what photographer Juergen Teller had to say about his first time visiting and how disappointed he was:
“He is the freest person I’ve ever met—he just does what he wants. And you know, if you go to Memphis, I was like totally disappointed when I got there. I was like oh my god, it is so boring—it is like an awful place. It is very dull, there is nothing going on!
As photographers, we always want to photograph novel things– things that are extraordinary. We get accustomed to the things in our own neighborhood, our own cities, and our own daily lives. We always think that the “grass is greener on the other side”
and that photographing in the streets of Paris will be more interesting than the suburb that we may live in.
I know a lot of street photographers who live in suburbs, and don’t have the opportunity or access to photograph in a big and bustling city like Chicago or New York. They feel that because of this, they cannot take interesting photographs.
But let’s look at Eggleston– the master of being able to make the boring look interesting. He has lived in the same place for 50 years, and still hasn’t gotten bored of the place. He has done the majority of his work in Memphis, and photographs everyday. Even after such a long time documenting his hometown, he still feels the drive and passion to find parts of Memphis that he hasn’t discovered yet.
Know that the place you live is unique. I would say it is even better that if you live in an obscure place, as a lot of street photography probably hasn’t been done in your community. This can give you the opportunity to make a unique body of work, whereas all the big cities have been photographed mostly to death (Paris, New York, Tokyo, etc).
So don’t take your own hometown for granted–even if you live in a suburb. Rather than thinking what you hate about your city, think about what you find interesting about it. Photograph the boring things of your city– and never quit exploring. If you are able to make a boring photograph interesting, you have done your job as a photographer.
3. Cultivate your eye
I think the most important quality that a street photographer should have is a sharp and keen eye. It doesn’t matter how technically proficient you are or how expensive your camera is. Without having a sharp and inquisitive eye– you will never make an interesting photograph.
So how was Eggleston able to cultivate his vision and eye? Well, he is generally curious about things– and would stare at things for hours (even without photographing them). His daughter, Andrea Eggleston shares this account:
“I knew that his photographs are very indicative of who he is and how he sees life, and I have always seen that in not only in his photographs but how he looks at things—and what he looks at—and what he notices. He definitely has a different eye. I’ve seen him stare for hours at a china set, [laughs] and not a particularly valuable china set. It is sort of maddening, but extraordinary.”
Martin Parr also shares what makes Eggleston’s vision so unique: his ability to make interesting photographs out nothing:
“The thing you look for other photographers work is a sense of vision—that you can recognize someones vision by looking at their photographs. Now that may sound like a very easy thing to do, but in photography it is one of the hardest things to actually achieve.
If you would like it, Eggleston is a photographer’s photographer. Because the vision is almost indescribable. It is more difficult to describe than most peoples vision, because it is about photographing democratically and photographing nothing and making it interesting—and that would seem to me to be the most difficult thing to achieve of all.”
When it comes to street photography, know that your eyes are your most valuable assets. Don’t worry about your camera, lens, or technical settings. If you aren’t a very technical photographer (or don’t care much about settings), just use “P” mode and rather focus on training your eye.
How might one train his or her eye? Well, it sounds quite obvious– but you want to look around a lot and be inquisitive, especially in places which you might intuitively thin is boring.
For example, let’s take a place we take granted for: the supermarket. It is a part of our boring, everyday lives– to pick up food, take it to the checkout counter, and then drive it back home. But if you think about it, the supermarket is a very weird place. What other time in history did we have the chance to go to a central location with all the foods we could possibly want?
And not only that, but look at the foods they offer us– most of them artificial and fake. Look at how colorful supermarkets are, and how bored (or excited) shoppers can be. Look at how consumerism and advertising influence people’s decisions with the tacky billboards and pricing labels inside. Look at the long queues at the checkout counter, or the plethora of choice we are given as consumers.
If you see the supermarket from an outsider’s perspective– it is a pretty weird place.
So perhaps the thought experiment we can do is pretend like we are aliens from another planet. Imagine if you landed on Earth and you are experiencing human society for the first time. What would you find interesting? What would you find strange? What would you find perplexing?
4. See the world in color
The majority of street photographers shoot in black and white. Why is that? Well, there is a sense of nostalgia we get from looking at old Cartier-Bresson photos in monochrome. It reminds us of the past, when things were more “interesting” and “romantic.”
For the longest time, the photography world only regarded black and white as being art. Color was ugly, it was vulgar. No serious photographer would photograph in color.
The renowned Magnum photographer Martin Parr explains how radical it was for Eggleston to be shooting in color in the late 1960’s (when everyone else was still shooting in black and white):
“His color is just sort of the color of nothing, if he likes- just ordinary life. And its funny that originally he started in black and white and moved to color. And I guess for him, it wasn’t an issue. But at the time, you have to understand, if you were a serious photographer you had to be working in black and white. So when he came along and did this sort of nothingness color, it wasn’t decorative, it was just ordinary life –it was quite radical, because it was so underplayed. And it took us a long time to understand and appreciate that.”
For those who would try to experiment in color, they had a difficult time photographing in color. They were so used to shooting in black and white that color became another variable– to make the difficult job of photography even harder. So when these photographers had to shoot in color, they would still see the world in black and white. John Szarkowski expands on this difficulty that photographers faced in the introduction to Eggleston’s ground-breaking book “William Eggleston’s Guide“:
“For the photographer who demanded formal rigor from his pictures, color was an enormous complication of a problem already cruelly difficult. And not merely a complication, for the new medium meant that the syntax the photographer had learned–the pattern of his education institutions–was perhaps worse than useless, for it led him toward the discovery of black and white photographs.”
Szarkowski continues by outlining the two biggest difficulties that black and white photographers had shooting in color. The first being that these photographers wouldn’t use the color in their photographs to add meaning. Rather, it was extraneous and didn’t add much to the image:
“Considering the lack of enthusiasm and confidence with which most ambitious photographers have regarded color, it is not surprising that most work in the medium has been puerile. Its failures might be divided into two categories:
1) “The more interesting of these might be described as black and white photographs made with color film, in which the problem of color is solved by inattention. The better photographs of the old National Geographic were often of this sort: no matter how cobalt the blue skies and how crimson the red shirts, the color in such pictures is extraneous – a failure of form. Nevertheless such picture are often interesting, even if shapeless and extravagant, in the same way that casual conversation is often interesting.”
The second point that Szarkowski mentions that photographers failed in is just seeing colors as being pretty things to add to an image (rather than once again, thinking about the meaning that color imbues into the image):
2) “The second category of failure in color photography comprises photographs of beautiful colors in pleasing relationships. The nominal subject matter of these picture is often the walls of old buildings, or the prows of sailboats reflected in rippled water. Such photographs can be recognized by their resemblance of Synthetic Cubist or Abstract Expressionist paintings. It is their unhappy fate to remind us of something similar but better.
Not only that, but photographers had a difficult time seeing the world in color. In this below except, Szarkowski mentions the difficulty of photographers being able to see the sky and the color blue as being the same thing:
“Outside the studio, where such color has been impossible, color has induced timidity and an avoidance of those varieties of meaning that are not in the narrowest sense aesthetic. Most color photography, in short, has been either formless or pretty. In the first case the meanings of color have been ignored; in the second they have been considered at the expene of allusive meanings. While editing directly fromlife, photographers have found too difficult to see simultaneously both the blue and the sky.”
Szarkowski, however, mentions that many contemporary photographers during his time (1976) were starting to make some headway when it came to incorporate the meaning of color into their photographs, and saw the world in color:
“In the past decade a number of photographers have begun to work in color in a more confident, more natural and yet more ambitious spirit, working not as though color were a separate issue, a problem to be solved in isolation (not thinking of color as photographers seventy years ago thought of composition), but rather as though the world itself existed in color, as though the blue and the sky were one thing.
The best of Elliot Porter’s landscapes, like the best of the color street pictures of Helen Levitt, Joel Meyerowitz, Stephen Shore, and others, accept color as existential and descriptive; these pictures are not photographs of color, any more than they are photographs of shapes, textures, objects, symbols, or events, but rather photographs of experience, as it has been ordered and clarified within the structures imposed by the camera.”
Eggleston is certainly someone who sees the world in color. In an interview with the Whitney Museum (2009) he stresses the importance of also going out when the light was good, to get the best colors in his image:
“I wanted to see a lot of things in color because the world is in color. I was affected by it all the time, particularly certain times of the day when the sun made things really starkly stand out.“
Not only that, but Eggleston is also emotionally moved when he sees the world in color. According to his son Winston, this is how Eggleston reacts when he sees beautiful colors:
“I wasn’t even born when he started taking color pictures, but I think he likes all colors. I mean, he really goes nuts over some of them. ‘Look at this beautiful orange’ or this beautiful purple.’ I’ll be with him somewhere and he will look at the sky and say, ‘Goddamn, that’s a good looking blue.’”
Another quite radical thing that Eggleston did with color photography was to adopt the “dye transfer” printing method. It was a method that only advertising photographers used– as it was quite expensive. It highlighted images with extreme saturation, vibrant colors, and it wouldn’t fade. When interviewed about using dye-transfer prints, Eggleston shares:
“It was a very old process, and used almost completely for fashion advertising, they would do the final prints and transfer – and I never heard of it being used for non-commercial or art photography, what I was doing. And I had two prints made right away, and I was astonished how good the material is.”
I think in street photography the main medium people are still drawn to is black and white. Part of this to do with the sense of nostalgia that we get from classic black and white street photographs. Another part is that black and white tends to be simpler to work in. Color adds more variables, which adds more complications, which makes shooting in the streets even more difficult.
However if you decide to embrace shooting street photography in color, don’t just shoot how you would in black and white and just leave your images in color. Rather, start to see the world in color.
See how you can incorporate the meanings of color into your image. For example, don’t just shoot the color red just because it is red. How does the color red add meaning to your images? Is it a bloody red that adds symbolism of danger, lust, anger, impending doom, or something else?
When shooting the color blue, think about the meaning of the color blue and how you can add meaning to your images. When we think of the color blue, we think calm, peace, and relaxation. We think about the serene waters in a stream or the playfulness of the skies and clouds.
Seeing the world in color is certainly a difficult task, but once you start to train your eyes– you will be surprised what you see, and the extra layer of meaning and intent you can add to your images.
5. You will be criticized
Any influential or revolutionary artist or photographer has always received criticism for trying out something new. Whenever we rebel against the status quo, there will be people who criticize you and try to keep things the way they were.
When Eggleston did his first influential show at the MOMA in New York in 1976 of his ordinary and banal photographs, it encountered a lot of hate, criticism, and negativity. A New York Times art critic dubbed the show: “The most hated exhibition of the year.” Another called it “Totally boring and perfectly banal” (which was ironically the point of the exhibition).
When interviewed about how he felt about his first huge show, Eggleston didn’t let the criticism get to him. Rather, he realized what he was doing was something radical, new, and modern:
“I think it was wonderful having a first major show at MOMA, of all places. It got tremendous recognition, great amount of it—-negative. I really felt sorry for them, because it was so obvious –-it was like they had the the wrong time. They didn’t understand what they were looking at. And their job was to understand it. Modern art, it is the museum of modern art. And, they wrote pretty stupid things. Then it became known all over the world, so, the critics who wrote all that stuff later apologized [laughed] that they were wrong.”
Don’t fear criticism from others when it comes to your photography. Rather, welcome it. I think whenever you provoke a reaction in which people criticize you, it means you are doing something right. Why is that? If nobody really cared, they wouldn’t say anything at all. But if you evoked some sort of emotional response (whether it be positive or negative) in a person, you have done your job as a photographer.
It is impossible for everyone in the world to enjoy your photographs. What matters more is that you enjoy your own photographs. And if a few people out there also enjoy your photos, even better.
I have gotten a lot of criticism and flak on the internet in the past (still today). At first it used to get to me quite personally, I would honestly lose sleep over it and question why I was doing what I was doing. However at the end of the day, it was a good thing that I was getting this criticism– as it allowed me to look at my work and approach with a more critical eye, and teach me how to build a thicker skin.
One of the most influential things I have read about criticism is from the infamous Seth Godin, a prolific marketer who also gets his fair share of criticism. In a short essay titled: “You will be judged (or you will be ignored)” he mentions the two ways that people will react to you:
“[There] are pretty much the only two choices.
Being judged is uncomfortable. Snap judgments, prejudices, misinformation… all of these, combined with not enough time (how could there be) to truly know you, means that you will inevitably be misjudged, underestimated (or overestimated) and unfairly rejected.
The alternative, of course, is much safer. To be ignored.
Up to you.”
So when it comes to your street photography you have two choices: to be judged or be ignored. You choose. Personally, I would rather choose the former.
6. Be a dreamer
One of the most fascinating things that I discovered about Eggleston is how he is a dreamer when it comes to his photography. Both figuratively and literally. Eggleston shares:
“Often very often, I have these ‘photographic dreams’. They are just one beautiful picture after another—which don’t exist. Short time later, I don’t remember them. I just remember being very happy during the dream [laughs]. Always in color.”
Eggleston often shares his photographic dreams with his son Winston as well:
“He will tell me, ‘I had the most fantastic photographic dream the other night. HE was telling me about all these colors involved.’ I think he is somehow trying to incorporate these dreams into his photographs.”
One thing I learned about creativity and psychology is that if you think about something obsessively enough, they begin to enter your dreams.
Why does this happen? Evolutionary biologists hypothesize that it is one of the natural ways that humans approach “problem solving.” If we ruminate on an idea long enough, the hidden connections often connect and make sparks of inspiration or innovation while we dream– and are relaxed. Relaxation is one of the secrets of creativity, as we cannot make creative breakthroughs when we are constantly stressed and wired.
Perhaps we can learn a lesson from Eggleston is that we should always be obsessive about our photographs, and always think about them. And if we are persistent enough, they can even enter our dreams!
7. Photograph the present moment
Whenever we look at photographs from the past, we get a sense of nostalgia. I used to often look at old photos by Cartier-Bresson and say, “Man, I wish I lived in the 1920’s–things looked so much more interesting back then.”
However I think this is a fallacy that we shouldn’t fall into. Why not? Well, to the people living in the 1920’s, I am sure that things looked quite boring then as well. Even when Eggleston was documenting Memphis from the late 1960’s onwards, I am sure that people didn’t think that all the retro Coca-Cola signs or shark-tail classic cars were interesting either.
So when Eggleston photographs, what does he look for? In the documentary with the BBC, he answers that he focuses on the present moment:
“What I’m photographing, it is a hard question to answer. And the best I’ve come up up is ‘life today.’ I don’t know whether they believe me or not, or what that means.”[Pointing at a photograph] I don’t know what to say about that, but it is today.”
We live in a day and time where everything looks quite boring, usual, and even ugly. We see people walking around with their iPhones, ugly shopping malls, and boring supermarkets.
However, know that the photographs you take today will undoubtedly be fascinating 50 years from now.
I am sure that 50 years from now, people will look at photos we take of people on their smartphones and laugh, “Oh my gosh, they used to use iPhones back then?” (Of course this is when we have computers embedded into our brains).
So don’t worry about the past or the future. Just focus on life today, and history will take care of the rest.
8. Have others help you edit your work
It is hard for us to edit our own best images. It is always great to get a second opinion, as others are generally better at understanding what our best shots are. This is because that we tend to get too emotionally attached to our photographs, and don’t judge them on more “objective” standards.
In Eggleston’s case, he got a ton of help from John Szarkowski when it came down to editing his images. Eggleston first approached Szarkowski with hundreds of photographs, Szarkowski helped Eggleston edit down his images to less than fifty.
Martin Parr shares the importance of having Szarkowski edit Eggleston’s photos, Szarkowski had much more experience than Eggleston when it came to editing images:
“It took if you wwould like, Szarkowski’s brilliance as a curator to find these pictures—- Eggleston is a very prolific shooter, or he certainly was then. He would have had thousands of pictures and Bill himself would have little idea what his best pictures were. He would have needed someone to knock the thing into shape and make it tight, make the thing work.”
Eggleston himself shares the collaboration that he had with Szarkowski and the huge amount of help that he gave him:
“The guide is a great percent, choices by John, really. But we worked together—-we were choosing all of these and the exhibition, projecting slides on the big screen. That is how we worked.”
It is incredibly difficult (if not impossible) to edit your own images. It is always good to get a second opinion, as others are the ones who are able to be more honest with your images in terms of what works or what doesn’t work.
However you shouldn’t just take one person’s opinion blindly over your own. What I suggest instead is to ask lots of different people for their opinion, independently, on a 1:1 basis (preferably in-person). Then collect all the feedback you get from others as a whole, and then take a more serious and critical look at your own work.
Of course at the end of the day, your own opinion is the most important. But still know the importance of getting others to collaborate with you. This synthesis will ensure that your photos will be bulletproof.
9. Don’t take any part of the frame for granted
Whenever people ask me to edit/critique their images, rather than looking at the main subject (that most street photographers do) I tend to look at the background first and for distractions or interesting details.
Rosa Eggleston (William Eggleston’s wife) shares an interesting anecdote in an exchange she had with William about not taking anything for granted in a photograph:
“One thing that I will never forget in my mind what Bill did say to me earlier on when he was talking to me, ‘Now you must not take anything for granted when you are looking at a picture. Never do that. Every single little tiny space on that page works and counts.”
Eggleston has always place a huge importance of how to construct his photographs, especially when it came to composition. Much of this inspiration came from Cartier-Bresson:
“My friend who was also interested in photographing, one time he bought many books containing photojournalism pictures. To me they were not interesting. But then I saw this one [Henri Cartier-Bresson’s ‘Decisive Moment’] and oh my God, this is not photojournalism—this is great art. Compositions, obvious knowledge of painting,… and the way of composing, and they’re still great.”
When I first looked at Eggleston’s work, I thought that his compositions were quite boring and uninteresting. However this is because I didn’t spend enough time analyzing each photograph by Eggleston. If you look carefully in the background, there are always small details which are fascinating.
This is what Martin Parr had to say about Eggleston’s compositions:
“The composition appears so intuitive, so natural. It is not forced upon us at all. It appears the simplest thing, but of course when you analyze it—it becomes quite sophisticated—and the messages that these pictures can release to us are quite complex and fascinating. And of course, that is a hallmark of a very good Eggleston.”
Some of Eggleston’s photos are cut off in strange places and composed unconventionally. But according to fine-art photographer Peter Fraser, that is part of his brilliance:
“It seemed so almost cackhanded, because there would be things missing, maybe, where you expected to see – maybe a complete figure or a complete component or a subject. It might be split, or cut off– there would be weird things happening perhaps around the edge of a picture – which turn out to be incredibly important in terms of understanding Eggleston’s aesthetic.”
To Eggleston, he puts great emphasis whenever he takes a frame. Because he composes so intentionally, he has made the practice of only taking one photograph per scene. Eggleston shares:
“I do have a personal discipline of only taking one picture of one thing. Not two. I would take more than one and get so confused later. I was trying to figure out which was the best frame. I said, this is ridiculous—I’m just going to take one.”
One of my favorite photos taken by Eggleston is one of a woman looking straight at him, with a quizzical look in her face. It is also a great photograph in which the small details really make the photograph. Parr analyzes the image and explains why he thinks it is good, with an emphasis on the detail of the chain on the right of the photograph:
“Now why is that good? She is sort of acknowledging him being there, yet there is something disturbing about her. It is great, and the chain is just wonderful. You would pray to have a chain like that—and use it just like a prop. And of course it is a pure coincidence that it happens to be there, right next to that woman. So, serendipity!”
It is very difficult (if not impossible) to see small details in a photograph when viewed 640px wide on the internet on our computer screens.
The way to really appreciate the images by Eggleston is through his photography books. They are printed much larger and have much more detail
which allows you to see the small details in a photograph, from all four corners of a frame.
I think the same goes with not only Eggleston’s work– but the work of other photographers. This is why I emphasize buying books, not gear as they help us get a better understanding of what makes a photograph great and develop in our own work.
So realize that sometimes it is the small details of a photograph and the composition which makes a photograph great. Think about your own photos this way. Don’t just focus on the subject, but the background as well– and everything in-between.
10. Improve a little bit, everyday
There are no shortcuts when it comes to mastering a certain skill, art, or profession. This certainly applies to photography. To improve as a photographer is a very slow and gradual journey. You can’t expect results overnight. Here is a brilliant excerpt that I love from the book: “Mastery” about being persistent (a quote from a zen master):
“It’s like chopping down a huge tree of immense girth. You won’t accomplish it with one swing of your axe. If you keep chopping away at it, though, and do not let up, eventually, whether it wants to or not, it will suddenly topple down…But if the woodcutter stopped after one or two strokes of his axe to ask, “Why doesn’t this tree fall?” and after three or four more strokes stopped again, “Why doesn’t this tree fall?” he would never succeed in felling the tree. It is no different from someone who is practicing the Way” – Zen Master Hakuin
We should realize the same thing for street photography. There is no way you will improve your confidence of shooting in the streets, improve your compositions, or create better images just by expecting great images from one or two day of shooting. We need to put in the time, energy, and persistence to create memorable images.
One fascinating thing about Eggleston is that not only is he an avid photographer, but he absolutely loves playing the piano. How did Eggleston pick up the piano? Well, he picked it up just by fiddling around with a little bit everyday– and over time, he got quite good. Not only that, but he makes the analogy that photography is quite the same:
“Without instruction, at a very early age, I could play the piano. Anything, particularly—after hearing it once. Not reading music. I would pass a quite fine piano in my house everytime we came from the back from the front—and everytime I would pass it I would play a few things, and without any success at all. And I got a little better and better, and time went on. And maybe never playing the same one twice. It aint much different the way I work today, still [in photography].”
To become great in street photography is a life-long process. I myself still have a lot more to learn, but I know that with every passing day that I shoot, read photography books, and write about street photography I make a little big of progress everyday.
Know that the greatest street photographers in history have only really achieved their fame after many decades of photographing in the streets. However they weren’t so concerned about fame or fortune or anything of the sort. Rather, they did it because they loved the challenge and how it pushed their boundaries.
There are no shortcuts in life. You need the grit, perseverance, and the passion to pull you through. Never get discouraged in your street photography because you feel you aren’t making progress. You can never see progress in a short period of time. Know that if you keep on swinging the axe or playing a few notes on the piano– you will one day reach greatness.
William Eggleston, whether you love him or not, is one of the greatest pioneers of color photography. What he was doing at the time was quite radical– not shooting in black and white as other “serious” photographers were doing.
But Eggleston didn’t shoot in color because he wanted fame or anything of the sort. Rather, he found color to be more of a challenge and fascinating than black and white. He didn’t complain that he lived in a pretty boring place in the South (Memphis) instead of living somewhere more “interesting” like New York City. Rather, he focused on documenting his own hometown in a very personal way, taking photographs everyday and looking for the brilliant light and color which made his community unique.
There are a lot of lessons that we can learn from Eggleston and his approach in photography. Whether you love or hate his work– it doesn’t really matter. What I think though is important is that you at least appreciate what he did for photography, and the lasting influence on street photographers from all around the world.
Books by Eggleston
William Eggleston: Chromes
If you have ~300 USD to spare, I absolutely recommend picking up a copy of Chromes. It is published by Steidl (one of the most renowned publishers in the world) and it is truly a work of art. The photographs in the book are like mini-prints, with great saturation, clarity, and beauty.
Not only that, but I assume that many years down the road, it will quickly become a collector’s item. So it is a double win: you will score one of the finest photography books in history and also make an investment. I’m sure that it will sell several times its price down the road.
William Eggleston: Los Alamos (Revisited)
Another masterpiece by Eggleston. Probably my second favorite Eggleston book, as it has some of his finest images that he took on road trips between 1965 and 1974. It recently got republished by Steidl, at an incredible 588 pages in a 3-book set.
This one is also as expensive as Chromes, at around ~320 USD. However considering how many pages it is, it is only around ~50 cents per page. Still a good investment in my opinion.
William Eggleston: For Now
A much more affordable Eggleston book at around ~40 USD. The book has a great collection of his images, and the print quality is also excellent (not as good as Chromes or Los Alamos). But if you want a good introduction and overview of Eggleston’s work, would recommend this book.
William Eggleston: 2 1/4
Another lovely photography book by Eggleston, this time it is his photographs shot on medium-format, 6×6. The same price as “For Now” at around ~40 USD. I also highly recommend this book as adding to your collection (I love the square format images).
William Eggleston: Before Color
This is a collection of his black and white images, before he started to shoot color. I find it fascinating to look at these images and to compare them to his color work.
The compositions in this book are excellent, and a must-have for any Eggleston fan. Not bad at ~50 USD.
William Eggleston’s Guide
The book of the exhibition that Eggleston first had at the MOMA, with a great introductory essay by Szarkowski (probably one of my favorite essays written on photography).
Honestly though, this is probably my least favorite Eggleston book. Why? It is a bit too small for my liking, and the print quality is a bit poor compared to the rest of the Eggleston books out there. Also the photos that Szarkowski chose for the exhibition aren’t as interesting as Eggleston’s other work. With the photos being so small, it is also hard to see and appreciate the small details and nuances of Eggleston’s work. If you want you can pick it up, it is extremely affordable at only ~25 USD.
Photo books by Eggleston (Previews)
Below are some cool previews of Eggleston’s books. So perhaps take a look before you decide to buy his books:
William Eggleston: Chromes Volume 1
William Eggleston: Chromes Volume 2
William Eggleston: Chromes Volume 3
“William Eggleston: Chromes” on Amazon
William Eggleston: Los Alamos
“William Eggleston: Los Alamos” on Amazon
William Eggleston: For Now
“William Eggleston: For Now” on Amazon
William Eggleston: 2 1/4
“William Eggleston: 2 1/4” on Amazon
Documentaries on Eggleston
I highly recommend watching Eggleston’s “Imagine” documentary. It is beautifully produced by the BBC, and gives a great look into his life and approach. It is also the warmest I have ever seen Eggleston in interviews. Much of this article was written based on excerpts from the documentary:
William Eggleston – Imagine Documentary – Part 1
William Eggleston – Imagine Documentary – Part 2
William Eggleston – Imagine Documentary – Part 3
William Eggleston – Imagine Documentary – Part 4
William Eggleston – Imagine Documentary – Part 5
William Eggleston in the Real World
A long documentary (over an hour long) which is an in-depth and insightful look of Eggleston in action. A bit drawn-out at times, but worth the watch (if you have the patience):