The revolution in color photography.

The big picture.
Feb. 10 2003 12:38 PM

Kodachrome Moment

How William Eggleston's revolutionary exhibition changed everything.

(Continued from Page 1)

Against this roiling mass of resentment, hidebound dismissal, and genuine technical inadequacy, Eggleston made his singular way, emerging out the other end as the Father of Color Photography. In truth, to grant him such a title is to foreshorten history a little: Paul Outerbridge and Eliot Porter had worked in color, and so had Eggleston's contemporary, Stephen Shore. But Eggleston, more than anyone, legitimized the medium, for what he did was to take color's perceived vices and, by pushing them a little farther along the axis of their failings, turn them into virtues, thereby liberating the process to work on its own terms.

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And so the pictures seem to be as casually framed as snapshots, their elements arranged in odd spirals, achieving an unlikely balance that seems more fortuitous than planned. The subject matter is often as banal as can be, pictures of folks who mean nothing to you unless you know them, engaged in activities as meaningless as possible. They're not even those archetypes of humanity—the staring poor, the rushing urbanite, the glamour wannabes—that occupied photographers of the past. Here, instead, we have the irreducibly singular, as if what the camera caught had never happened before and will never happen again in precisely the same way: a young boy lying on the floor of a garage, a woman strolling down the side of a road, a pink-tongued dog drinking from a puddle.

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And yet some of the images are positively lurid, as if the artist were declaring, "Take that"—and then producing a photo of a furnace-red brick building, a sordidly green-tiled shower stall, an elderly woman whose garishly patterned dress clashes with the equally garish daybed on which she's sitting. A photograph of a tree at night is washed out by the photographer's flash, leaving only a distant red stop sign to keep the entire composition from being almost insufferably unbalanced and shot through with glare. Nowadays, when it's not unusual to see manifest grain, or light flaring uncontrollably off a glass surface, or even red-eye in pictures on gallery and museum walls, you might think that what Eggleston did seems rather tame. But many of these images—see, for example, the infamous RedCeiling—still have the power to shock.

Certainly, they were shocking at the time; in 1976, when the Guide was first exhibited, it received notoriously nasty reviews. (Hilton Kramer—then, as now, absolutely wrong about absolutely everything—called the show "Perfectly banal … Perfectly boring.") In retrospect, the show was both necessary and beautiful, and with the catalog's reprinting, it can and should be seen by everyone.

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In a way, Eggleston did for color photography what the Dutch Masters of genre did for painting in the 16th and 17th centuries: He took it out of the hands of the wealthy institutions that had sponsored it (fashion magazines and advertising agencies in the one case, the church in the other) and turned it into an expression of the everyday. It is not so far, after all, from the vulgar to the vernacular: Eggleston bridged the gap, and in doing so delivered color back into the hands of art.

Click here  to see a slide show of the artist's photographs.

Jim Lewis is the author of three novels, most recently, The King Is Dead.

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