William Eggleston

(b. 1939) Photographer

Photographer William Eggleston, popularly known as the Father of Color Photography, was born on 27 July 1939 in Memphis, Tennessee. Raised on his family’s plantation in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi, Eggleston attended classes at Vanderbilt, Delta State, and the University of Mississippi, though he never received a degree. While in school, Eggleston learned a great deal about modern art, particularly the abstract expressionists. He began photographing by 1957 and was soon inspired by the vision of photographers Robert Frank and Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Although his early work consisted of traditional black-and-white photography, by the late 1960s Eggleston shot almost exclusively with color transparency film. In contrast to Gary Winograd’s confrontational street photography or Diane Arbus’s studied portraits, Eggleston chose literally to photograph the world around him. It was as if he freed himself from photographic convention, eschewed the formulas of composition, and simply observed his environment. Images of worn shoes under a bed, a freezer brimming with packaged foods, and the interior of an oven epitomize Eggleston’s curious and probing eye. Similarly arresting are his photos of the rural South. Black Bayou Plantation, near Glendora, Mississippi depicts white plastic containers that appear to have just spilled from a cardboard box across a dirt road. A portion of a wood structure appears at the right frame, beside which the road recedes into the sun-drenched landscape. As in many of Eggleston’s images, there is a sense of something ominous afoot, as if calamity lurks just out of the frame.

In 1967 Eggleston traveled to New York and met Jon Szarkowski, director of the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art, and the meeting led to a 1976 exhibition of Eggleston’s work, the first one-person exhibition of color photographs in the museum’s history and a watershed moment in photography. The vibrant images of seemingly banal subject matter both shocked and bewildered viewers. Eggleston’s most arresting images are deceptively casual yet recklessly engaging in their ineffable sense of peril. Untitled (Greenwood, Mississippi), more popularly known as The Red Ceiling, is one of Eggleston’s more celebrated images. From a garish red ceiling dangles a bare lightbulb from which the tendrils of white extension cords slither towards the walls of the room. “It is so powerful,” Eggleston said of this photo, “that I have never seen it reproduced on the page to my satisfaction. When you look at the dye transfer print, it’s like red blood that’s wet on the wall. . . . It shocks you every time.”

Perhaps it is no coincidence that Eggleston burst into the national consciousness as the South became increasingly urbanized. His images depict a region sliding ever closer to homogenization. “One of the first things that woke me up,” Eggleston commented, “was walking into some alien place, a shopping center—one of the first ones in the country—and thinking, ‘It’s right here.’” Eggleston’s juxtapositions of old money Delta interiors, newly constructed suburbs, and desolate rural landscapes suggest a land on the cusp of an uneasy transition. Furthermore, many of his environmental portraits are of individuals who appear to uneasily negotiate their personal spaces. A man leers sideways over his coffee cup; an elderly woman stares glumly from a household doorway, the room behind her both doleful and threatening. A restless anxiety pervades much of Eggleston’s portraiture, as if the subjects themselves are wrestling with psychological turmoil.

In addition to exhibitions at major museums, Eggleston has published more than ten portfolios and numerous monographs, including William Eggleston’s Guide, Los Alamos, Ancient and Modern, and The Democratic Forest. He is also the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Photographer’s Fellowship and a Getty Images Lifetime Achievement Award.

Further Reading

  • Geoff Dyer, The Ongoing Moment (2005)
  • William Eggleston, Ancient and Modern (1992)
  • Richard Grant, Telegraph (29 June 2002)
  • Charles Hagen and Nan Richardson, Aperture (Summer 1989)
  • John Howell, Aperture (Winter 2001)
  • Mary Werner Marien, Photography: A Cultural History (2006)
  • Sean O’Hagan, London Observer (25 July 2004)
  • Ingrid Sischy, Art Forum (February 1983)
  • Constance Sullivan, ed., Horses and Dogs: Photographs by William Eggleston (1994)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title William Eggleston
  • Coverage b. 1939
  • Author
  • Keywords william eggleston
  • Website Name Mississippi Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date April 4, 2020
  • Publisher Center for Study of Southern Culture
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 14, 2018