William Eggleston is most known, perhaps, as the guy who dragged color photography (kicking and screaming) onto the fine art scene. Additionally, much of this photography is, indeed, street photography. Put another way then, William Eggleston is the grandfather of color street photography. His Guide (MoMA, 1976, 2002) was revolutionary when it first hit the shelves in 1976. At that time, color photography was for amateur tourists and children’s birthday parties – not art, and certainly not for museum walls. This all quickly changed thanks to the likes of Eggleston and, it should also be noted, others like Joel Meyerowitz.
When we begin to look through the Guide with “modern eyes” we might, at first blush, question the aesthetic vision of many of the images. Some of the photographs are rather underwhelming by today’s standards, both in terms of their subject matter and their technical prowess. With this in mind, we have to approach the work in Eggleston’s Guide not so much with modern eyes but with a kind of “vintage understanding”. Some images, such as the green bathtub, are only meaningful because they are in color and were presented at a time when color photographs were novel. Other images are unique in their banality – an obscure characteristic that has more recently become commonplace. Here I’m thinking, specifically, of the image of the dirt road and sky. In fact, the banality, combined with the unfamiliarity of color, almost certainly made this photograph uniquely strange to 1970’s eyes.
When it comes to Eggleston’s Guide in contemporary times, there is still much value to be had from the collection. Of course, it does not affect us in the same ways as it surely would have in the 1970s and that’s okay. What we may glean from it in our time is both a glimpse into color photography’s past, as well as a piece of the aesthetic “conversation” critical to understanding photography that matters today. If you are at work producing color street photography today and are ignorant as to how your work fits into the larger narrative (i.e., how it speaks to the work of Eggleston – or not) than you are at work in the dark. Your work will almost certainly fail the test of time. Few, very few, successful and enduring artists have worked in a vacuum. Therefore, if you are to break free from such a narcissistic position and actually learn about the work of others before you, William Eggleston’s Guide surely needs to be on your list.
Unlike some famous photography monographs, the Guide has been faithfully reproduced in an affordable second edition making it easily accessible to a whole new generation of street photographers. Although Eggleston certainly trains his lens on human subjects, in some ways his photography is more about the human environment – the space around the human – than the human subject itself. This is an important sub-genre in street photography. Others, like Cartier-Bresson, more seamlessly integrated the human and the environment – his photographs were about both, equally. Others still, such as Cohen or Gilden, focus in on the human aspect almost to the complete disregard of the surrounding environment. All three styles have attracted scores of more contemporary emulators with most street photographers falling loosely into one of these three camps. Regardless of where your focus may be, it is important to be familiar with each of these three approaches to street photography. Eggleston’s Guide is a superb example of how the banality of everyday life can be engaging, poignant, and critical to our understanding of ourselves and our society. It is a must study for any serious street photographer, especially those who prefer to present in color.