Exhibition: William Eggleston Portraits

National Portrait Gallery, London. 21 July – 23 October 2016

I was fortunate enough to have a day in London last week and managed to fit in four photography exhibitions. Two were portraiture-themed (the other being Yousuf Karsh) so I will write about them on here – the others were documentary-focused so will be covered on my Documentary learning log.

I only took a serious look at Eggleston a matter of months ago, when I got Guide (1976) for the first time. I was struck not by the colour aesthetic that he is most famous for (I guess the shock of the new wears off after a few decades) but by the subject matter and the mood – he captured suburban inertia better than anyone I’d ever seen. There’s a banal, static kind of melancholy at which he excels.

eggleston-2

What I didn’t take away from Guide was the notion that Eggleston was primarily a portraitist, so it was with much interest that I went along to see this exhibition, buoyed by uniformly good reviews. I came away with the impression that Eggleston should have done much more portraiture, as I found it more interesting than his regular output.

A few of the pictures are in black and white, but they still come across as recognisably Eggleston. It’s in the naturalistic poses, I think – he’s very good at capturing facial expressions, for a start.

Most of the work is in his trademark colour, and a good few of them were in Guide, though overall there were more pictures that were new to me than familiar. A few of his most famous pictures are portraits to one degree or another, though the one of his uncle and his uncles’s driver below is perhaps more of a study of a relationship than a double portrait.

I was particular delighted to see his iconic 1975 colour portrait of Marcia Hare (known to me as the cover for a 2006 Primal Scream single), alongside a similarly-posed black and white counterpart. Printed large, the images are both as much about the dress as the girl – in the mono version it’s the sharpness and clarity of the pattern that is striking, while in the famous colour version it’s the selective focus that renders buttons sharp and lower flower patterns soft. It’s fascinating to see the two side-by-side.

Eggleston-4.jpg

His posing and lighting are almost always very natural, and in the rare instance where this is not the case, it sticks out like a sore thumb. There is one in the set below that is not like the others – it’s almost Bruce Gilden-esque. I’m not sure why it was included in this set.

Eggleston-1.jpg

There are a couple of his portraits that I hadn’t seen before that evoked the same static melancholy that pervaded Guide, and in both instances they were close friends of his. Viva, a member of Andy Warhol’s circle who became Eggleston’s lover, and artist William Christenberry. In both cases the composition, off-camera gaze and gestures give the same sense of contemplative isolation that I admired in my first reading of Eggleston’s work.

I think one of the marks of great portraiture is that it gives the viewer an impression of knowing something about the subject, even if they are entirely unknown. It’s the implication of depth of character that the photographer catches. Based on this collection, Eggleston was a natural at this game of making you think you know the sitter when you don’t, and I get the sense that this works because he knows the sitters so well.

Sources

http://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/eggleston/exhibition.php (accessed 29/09/2016)

Eggleston, W. and Szarkowski, J. (2002) William Eggleston’s Guide (2nd ed). New York: MoMA
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