In order to pinpoint exactly when color photography became an art form, it would be wise to investigate the early work of William Eggleston. The Mississippi dandy broke into the upper echelon of the art world in 1976, when he received a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, much to the chagrin of “serious” aesthetes. A New York Times critic even called it “The most hated show of the year.” Why? Because Eggleston’s color photos look like snapshots. To an untrained eye, they were the work of an amateur. But to those who have studied the photographer’s work in the 36 years hence, the impact of his photos on the art world has been invaluable.
To create maximum visual impact, Eggleston saturates his photos with vivid primary colors through a complicated dye-transfer process. In this way, he’s using color as a painter would — evoking feelings of loss and wonder through his wide-format prints.
In his “Los Alamos” photos, now on display at Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills, Calif., Eggleston traveled out West to experience expansive blue skies and roadside attractions. The automobile is a fixture in his images, taken in the late 60s and early 70s (and forgotten until around 2004), at a time when the car held an enormous amount of power over the American subconscious. The hulking multicolored Caminos and Buicks provided Americans a way out of towns across the country, but also trapped them in, running circles around gargantuan parking lots with no particular place to go.
In “Untitled (1971-74),” we see a red-and-white cop car with a bulbous red siren, wending its way down the available concrete path next to a fallow field lined with bits of patchy green grass. The perspective is unnervingly off. We float above the scene, but only just a bit, as if we were catching a ride on the back end of the trunk. This off-kilter view adds to the confusion of the unnamed scene, where we are gawkers inching up to a possible car crash. But there’s such beauty in the image it’s hard to come to terms with anything bad happening within or beyond the frame.
In another untitled work, we see a vibrant red sign advertising diesel alongside a hand painted sign simply stating “MINNOWS,” in all caps, with the “S” placed above the “W” as an afterthought. Perhaps the owners of the fish forgot they were selling more than one? The humor in the work is evident, and Eggleston gladly lets us in on the joke. But beyond the scene is Highway 61, a landmark stretch of concrete spanning 1,400 miles, reminding us to keep moving.
From these photos, we begin to realize the vast expanse of America — it is huge, largely vacant and overwhelming. We drive to our destinations, protected in our cars, under a looming sky.
These skies are breathtaking examples of the power of nature, acting as a reminder that we are all carving a place for ourselves on a round blue ball. Wisps of cumulus clouds inhabit giant portions of the frame, making a stunning backdrop for an otherwise mundane scene — which is why cerulean should hereafter be known as “Eggleston blue.” Because of this perspective, Peter Schjeldahl’s statement in a 2008 New Yorker review rings true: “You can always tell a William Eggleston photograph. It’s the one in color that hits you in the face and leaves you confused and happy.”
This story originally appeared in Huffington, in the iTunes App stor