“William Eggleston Portraits” is Déjà Vu All Over Again

Photo: Untitled, 1970-4 (Dennis Hopper) by William Eggleston, 1970–74 ©Eggleston Artistic Trust

American photographer William Eggleston (b. 1939) is deeply attuned to the poetry of life, to the spaces in between the words that bridge mind, body, and soul. His photographs are alive with great swaths of color and mood, of atmosphere and feeling that goes beyond words. They are fragments spun in the web of time, captured by Eggleston with a precision that belies his mastery of the medium.

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In celebration, the National Portrait Gallery, London, presents William Eggleston Portraits, the first comprehensive museum exhibition of his work, on view now through October 23, 2016. Showcasing over 100 works, the show features portraits of Eggleston’s friends, musicians, actors and rarely seen images of his family, revealing for the first time the identities of many of the sitters who had previously been anonymous.

Untitled, 1974 (Karen Chatham, left, with theartist'scousinLesaAldridge,inMemphis,Tennessee)byWilliamEggleston,1974Wilson CentreforPhotography

Untitled, 1974 (Karen Chatham, left, with the artist’s cousin Lesa Aldridge, in Memphis, Tennessee) by William Eggleston, 1974 Wilson Centre for Photography

Eggleston has a gift for mystery, for creating an alluring spectacle that asks question it has no intention of answering. He observed, “A picture is what it is and I’ve never noticed that it helps to talk about them, or answer specific questions about them, much less volunteer information in words. It wouldn’t make any sense to explain them. Kind of diminishes them. People always want to know when something was taken, where it was taken, and, God knows, why it was taken. It gets really ridiculous. I mean, they’re right there, whatever they are.”

And rightly so. The brilliance of an Eggleston photograph is the way it disregards all presumptions of portraiture, but for the singular purpose of capturing the soul for all eternity. Since picking up the camera in 1957, Eggleston has traveled the world, taking it all in with Zen grace. His photographs are a testament to the fleeting joys of life. He understood, “I don’t have a burning desire to go out and document anything. It just happens when it happens. It’s not a conscious effort, nor is it a struggle. Wouldn’t do it if it was. The idea of the suffering artist has never appealed to me. Being here is suffering enough.”

(Dane Layton) by William Eggleston, 1973

(Dane Layton) by William Eggleston, 1973

Eggleston’s 1976 show at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, was a pivotal moment for photography, as color had achieved recognition long overdue by a discriminating congnoscenti that waited patiently to be overwhelmed. Eggleston came through, not just with his experimental use of the dye-transfer technique, but with his spellbinding images that feel like déjà vu all over again.

Perhaps this is because Eggleston set the highwater mark, inspiring a generation of photographer who followed in his path. The casual glamour of everyday life never fails to arouse a genuine desire to get involved. William Eggleston Portraits will take you there, promising highlights from a life in photography along with a selection of never-before-seen vintage black and white photographs taken in and around the artist’s home in Memphis, Tennessee.

Untitled,c.1975(MarciaHareinMemphisTennessee)byWilliamEggleston,c1975

Untitled, c.1975 (Marcia Hare in Memphis Tennessee) by William Eggleston, c 1975

Ultimately, Eggleston understood, “Photography just gets us out of the house.” It takes us out of our lives and drops us into other worlds. And in this way it becomes a shared memory, we who do not know but remember for having seen.

All photos:  ©Eggleston Artistic Trust

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.