A lens less ordinary

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In 1976, an exhibition of colour prints by a relatively unknown photographer at New York’s Museum of Modern Art was dismissed by one prominent New York critic as “banal” and derided by countless others. William Eggleston’s chromatic “everyday” aesthetic was initially deemed to be rather ordinary and unremarkable.

Thirty years on, the influence of Eggleston’s seminal work is everywhere: from film to edgy advertising and fashion shoots to the omnipresence of colour in art photography – think of Andreas Gursky and Martin Parr, among others.

But although by the 1970s Technicolor had pervaded popular culture in the form of design and television, colour photography was still considered vulgar, the domain of advertising billboards and family snapshots but not of the art world.

While in the late 1960s Eggleston’s fellow American photographer and friend, Diane Arbus, was using formal portraiture to immortalise society’s misfits and outcasts, he focused his attention on the quotidian objects and scenes of the world around him, from a child’s tricycle to a dog drinking from a puddle.

With its skewed angles and (later on) saturated colour, Eggleston’s style monumentalised his subjects in a way that subverted all models of photography before him.

During 1974, at the height of his experimentation with colour, he produced a series of photographs capturing life in his native Memphis, Tennessee. Previously unprinted, 24 of the untitled shots are on show over two floors of Inverleith House as part of the Edinburgh Art Festival.

Eggleston once described himself as “at war with the obvious” and, true to form, these compelling images play on contradicting viewers’ expectations. A year earlier Eggleston had discovered dye transfer printing (which he would go on to use in his groundbreaking MoMa show), an expensive and involved process that had previously been used only in commercial photography.

The illuminating effect, coupled with the detail achieved with the use of a large-format camera, makes his images of the commonplace appear almost hyper-real.

The eye is drawn to the lustre of the burnished metallic paintwork of Cadillac cars lined up for sale under rows of candy-coloured bunting; the polished surface of a leather sofa glows beneath a Pollock-esque print mounted on a wood-panelled wall; and, in a homage to Walker Evans’s 1936 “Gas Station, Reedsville, West Virginia”, telephone wires criss-cross the sky at dusk, exaggerating the sunset which oscillates from a burnt orange to vibrant blue, punctuated by a central, glowing green street light.

From afar, the photographs are extravagantly vibrant against the stark, whitewashed walls, the imposing windows of this impressive space allowing sunlight to be lavished on each glossy print.

But up close the detail is quite remarkable: the individual hairs of the sun-bleached down visible on the tanned body of a young girl (along with the Panstick, highlighting a less than perfect complexion); thousands of pin-sharp freckles covering a sandy-haired, all- American boy; and each individual pore, wrinkle and nose-hair on the weathered face of an ageing B-movie star.

Eggleston’s portraits are both stark and subtle: many of his subjects appear studiously self-aware and avoid eye contact with the lens. But each person is treated as an individual – imperfections and idiosyncracies are celebrated – and his vernacular style captures a certain intimacy.

But what is most striking is just how fresh and lucid this lost work remains. Aside from the tell-tale signs of 1970s styles in the hair and clothes, the images display none of the faded nostalgia we would expect to see in photographs taken three decades ago. Indeed they serve to reinforce the legacy of a consummate artist who paved the way for a new generation of modern photographers.

‘William Eggleston: Portraits 1974’, Inverleith House, Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh. Admission free. Until October 14

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