Before Colour: photographer William Eggleston in black-and-white

As these rediscovered prints reveal, the man who made colour photography into an artform worked brilliantly in monochrome – and his eye for unsettling detail is every bit as sharp.

Guardian – Sean O’Hagan

Eggleston in black-and-white? It seems a contradiction in terms. But here, finally, is the evidence that even the most famous colour photographer of all once saw the world around him in monochrome. It is quite a surprise.

A new book, published by Steidl, is called simply Before Colour. It’s a great title: specific to the arc of William Eggleston‘s development, but suggestive of the wider impact that his first colour images had on photography in general. We now often divide the history of photography into before and after colour – a shift of consciousness that is often put down to Eggleston’s ground-breaking show at MoMA in 1976, which shocked critics with its dramatic, heavily saturated dye-transfer prints. In fact this wasn’t the first time that colour photography had appeared in a major American gallery: photographer Stephen Shore exhibited colour images of America at the Metropolitan Museum of Art four years earlier, and also caused something of a critical storm.

Eggleston’s exhibition is now regarded as the moment that colour photography became an art form in itself. Ever since, he has been regarded as the most dramatic colourist in American photography…

Part of the power of these photographs rests in the fact that we know what is coming, and where it will take photography. Yet even though it’s hard not to return to the question of what these images would look like if only they’d been shot in colour – let alone Egglestonian colour – this is an important work both for students of photographic history and in its own right. Before Colour tells us what we already know: that the greats do not suddenly become great, but work hard to establish a style and signature. But it also shows something more – the great iconoclast, honing his democratic vision before he found the perfect medium for it. The future is just around the corner, but it will take some time before the world catches up with William Eggleston’s brilliant – in every sense of the word – vision.

Myth, Manners and Memory: Photographers of the American South

These photographs of the American south offer widely differing views of the same elusive subject, writes Sean O’Hagan

Guardian – Sean O’Hagan

The American south has been mythologised in literature, film, popular music and photography. From William Faulkner to Muddy Waters, Tennessee Williams to William Eggleston, Gone With the Wind to Huckleberry Finn, it has colonised our collective imagination as a place apart, even a state of mind.

In photography, the American south has been viewed from the inside by native southerners such as Eggleston, William Christenberry and Eudora Welty (who was a very good photographer before she became a great writer) and from the outside, most famously by Walker Evans in the 1930s, and by the likes of Carrie Mae Weems, Alec Soth and Susan Lipper in more recent times. All of the above, with the exception of Welty, are included in Myth, Manners and Memory, a relatively selective, but nevertheless illuminating, group show at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill.

Walker Evans’s photographs of the American south, taken between 1935 and 1938 during the Depression, for the Farm Security Administration, are among the most celebrated images of the 20th century. You could even say that they made the south synonymous with poverty and struggle in a way that it was once synonymous with segregation and slavery. They changed the way America viewed the south, and the way the south saw itself…

The most wilfully problematic photographs in Myth, Manners and Memory belong to Susan Lipper. A New Yorker, she spends several months every year in Grapevine Hollow, a remote rural community in the Appalachian mountains. She calls her photographs “collaborations” and curator Celia Davies describes them as “much less documentary, far more cinematic in character”.

Lipper’s characters are real, but her scenarios are often staged. She plays with stereotypes of the Appalachian south –rednecks, white thrash, the ominous backwoods – while simultaneously portraying a place – and a community – where the often alcohol- or drug-fuelled violence and poverty are very real. It is a long way from Walker Evans but that, perhaps, is the point. The American south is not so much another country as several overlapping, and often contradictory, narratives, all of which continue to tug on our collective imagination even as they elude our understanding.

The South Is…

De La Warr Pavilion – Thinking Aloud Blog

…The South is…”a colourful, poor, cruel, historical, segregated, vast, messy, frontier.”

The South is…”a reminder that American culture isn’t as comfortably, tediously uniform as some might have you believe.”

The South is…”being able to walk freely across the beaches and the countryside, through the towns and cities – whoever you are…”

The South is…”in search of amusement…”

The South is…”stark, colourful, barren, lush”.

The South is…”not the North. Bruised, beat-up and abandoned – “this land is condemned at the way from New Orleans to Jerusalem” (Dylan).”

Three of the most interesting conversations I had during the afternoon were with visitors who are either American or who have lived in the United States for a while. They all separately expressed the view that the sense of hopelessness and melancholia they read from the photographs are only one facet of the “South”, and that the exhibition (although they all liked it very much) reinforces the myths we tend to believe about the place. While other powerful elements, such as the dynamism of the cities and the genteel elegance of the manner of the people (in all walks of life) are invisible.

As with the other days when I have been interacting in the gallery, there were a number of visitors who were enthralled to see original prints by their photographic heroes. In particular, William Eggleston’s highly saturated surfaces are so rich it looks as if the colour could bleed on to the floor. This intensity is a vital component of his vision and cannot be replicated in books about the artist’s work…

 

end – 😉

Advertisements