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Jiyoon Shin
English 101:11
21 October 2014
At War With the Obvious
Untitled (near Jackson, Mississippi), ca. 1970, printed 2002 (Hale 2013). Photograph
and dye-transfer print by William Eggleston. A childs coat hangs carelessly on a wall over a
crib. The coat is of synthetic cloth and bright red and navy and does not seem to belong on the
grimy cement wall. The angle at which the picture was shot emphasizes the cobwebbed ceiling
corner and the corner of the baby bed. The flash from the camera casts both light and shadow
but seems to be the only source of light in the room. First come these thoughts: so what?
Whats so special about this? Then come the questions: who is the child that wore the coat?
Who takes care of the child and what were they so busy with that they couldnt even take time
to turn the coat right side out? These questions remain unanswered because this little corner of
the room is all Eggleston provided. In fact, he never intended it to be anything more than just a
coat hanging on a wall. Egglestons photography is literally what it is. He simply sees just as
much value in the obvious and mundane as the phenomenal and extravagant. The art world was
not prepared for his particular perspective at first but now embraces it and finds subtle yet
overwhelming feeling and meaning in his art. However, he does not wish for the audience to
find meaning in his photos because he believes there is none; he only longs for people to see
equal beauty and value in any object he photographs. He breaks the rules this way because
meaning is thought to be an integral part of art. The contrast between his honest representation

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of subjects and the audiences desire to elucidate his photographs is art in itself. It is about
perspective and interpretation or even lack thereof.
I saw William Egglestons exhibition at the Metropolitan, in a room neither small nor
large that swarmed with more than the usual amount of people. To be blunt, his photographs
were disappointing at first glance. I swiftly passed the photographs of a freezer, a pair of shoes
under a bed, and the back of a car. It seemed like he spun his surroundings like a globe, stopped
it with a finger, and photographed whatever his finger landed on. I thought maybe Eggleston
was trying to be facetious or ironic. But what I saw next inscribed on the wall struck me: I had
this notion of what I called a democratic way of looking around, that nothing was more or less
important. Egglestons quote disturbed my first impression of him and urged me to get a
second look.
I realized that through Egglestons democratic eyes, everything was of equal value.
Depictions of racial tension are presented in the same way as a light bulb or 25 cotton candy.
The inside of a black oven can be just as beautiful as an old woman smoking a cigarette. No
matter the degree of simplicity of the subject, there was hidden depth and wonder that left me
intrigued. Is the woman at the bus stop going to meet her long-distance lover? Or is she running
away from an abusive husband? Is the child that owns the tricycle off to get ice cream? Or is
the child missing? No matter which direction the questions went, they left me feeling lost,
hungry for the truth, and at war with the obvious. I had been used to photography of the
opposite effect; whether it was of historical moments or landscapes enveloped in fog, I was
able to understand what the photographer intended or what I interpreted. Thus, Egglestons
unconventional intention and attitude toward subject matter was refreshing to me. Experiencing
the mystery of such commonplace subjects is almost haunting and laced with irony.

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However, feelings of mystery or irony might not be what Eggleston had intended. In
fact, he said, a picture is what it is and Ive never noticed that it helps to talk about them, or
answer specific questions about them, much less volunteer information in words. It wouldnt
make any sense to explain them. Kind of diminishes them. People always want to know when
something was taken, where it was taken, and, God knows, why it was taken. It gets really
ridiculous. I mean, theyre right there, whatever they are (Hagan 2004). His photographs, to
him, are purely coincidental. He doesnt seek a particular object or pursue an emotion; he
merely takes one photograph of whatever or whoever is there, whenever and however. Having
more than one version of a photograph and the attempt to pick the best one confused him. A
typical photographer will take five, ten, or fifteen different shots of the same thing to obey the
rule of thirds and get the perfect frame, depth, and leading lines. Eggleston will take one shot,
feeling lucky to have capture even one (Hagan 2004). If something strikes him as beautiful, he
does not feel the need to manipulate it; if he does, it may no longer be beautiful. The trust he
instills in the subject is what allows brilliant and courageous delivery.
The way he captures a fleeting moment just the way he sees it reminds us that
everything has an origin and a destiny. We become deeply attached to the childs coat on the
wall, and the child that wears the coat, and the childs home. His photographs evoke emotion,
mystery, and wonder, even though that is not his intention. To make that clear, he also never
titles his pictures or provides the location and date of the photograph. This may catch the
audience off guard, for they subconsciously rely heavily on the title, location, and date as a hint
or reveal of meaning. To him, they are not necessary to photography. A photograph captures a
subject in a particular second and doesnt need a backstory or meaning. I wish I could please
him and appreciate his photos without asking many questions, but I find so much thrill in the

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unsettling and uncanny wonder that he creates. Egglestons lack of connotation goes against
our nature to seek meaning out of meaningless. Thus, art can be defined by this contrast of
perspective; the audience can create millions of interpretations and meanings while the artist
pays no mind to the meaning.
One reason why his photographs seem to radiate so much essence is his use of color. In
the sixties however, the art world was shocked not only by his subject matter, but also his use
of intense color. While photography as art itself was still young and unfamiliar to most back
then, use of color was almost unheard of. Serious photographers did not even consider color
because they were so used to black and white that color became just another variable to worry
about. It was also often thought that black and white gave pictures a more nostalgic and
romantic feel (Szarkowski 2002). Despite this rigid mindset, Eggleston used a dye-transfer
technique that allowed him to control the saturation of individual colors. Back then, this
process was complicated, pricey, and only used for magazine printing. Critics did not
understand why he needed it for printing such boring photographs. Because dye-transferring
was so expensive, it quickly died out and became unique to Egglestons style (Weski 1998).
Today, we understand the effect of Egglestons color, which is so subtle that we do not
even perceive it as a whole entity of photography. But color is absolutely necessary in bringing
out a certain feeling. Film theorist Stanley Cavell said, What makes his photographs of
nonevents especially meaningful is his use of color to convey the 'feel' of a particular place. He
emphasizes hues that soak the scene or resonate in a critical way, virtually creating effects of
sound, silence, smell, temperature, pressure--sensations that black-and-white photography has
yet to evoke (Weski 1998). In the picture of the childs coat, the vivid colors of the coat make

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us think of youthful carefreeness and adventure which clashes disturbingly with the bleak wall
that could symbolize neglect and isolation.
Although he photographs in the spur of the moment, he understands color theory very
well. His photographs have a comfortable and harmonious intertwining of colors; many of his
pictures have warm reds, oranges, and yellows in the background while the subject is a bold
color on the other end of the spectrum, making the subject pop. In the picture of the childs
coat, the red, navy, and lustrous white colors make the coat stand out from the grey wall. He
also seems to favor photographing during the golden hour when the light is softest and
warmest at sunrise or sunset. He used these techniques to bring attention to his subjects and
capture it as it is. If he had fully committed to black and white photography, Eggleston's
designs would be in fact almost static, almost as blandly resolved as the patterns seen in
kaleidoscope (Szarkowski 2002). His color technique allows his subject matter to stand out,
thus allowing him to showcase its beauty. He brought color into the black and white world of
photography despite the tumult; if the world is in color, then the photograph must be in color.
Egglestons use of color and banal subject matter evoked only criticism and confusion
in the beginning of his career. In 1976, the Museum of Modern Art in New York displayed
Egglestons photographs. Critics called his work cheap, vulgar and labeled his show most
hated show of the year. When he was interviewed about the show, he showed that he did not
care about what the critics thought. In fact, he dismissed and called them oblivious for missing
the point; their job was to keep an open mind and understand art at the museum of modern art.
He was bombarded with disapproval for his unfamiliar and unconventional style, but he paid no
mind and continued doing exactly what he thought should be in a photograph (Sampson 1994).
That is why he stands as one of the most influential photographers in history; he broke the rules

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and neglected societys expectations of photography. He brought attention to the underplayed
and showed everything is of equal beauty.
I can only thank William Eggleston for showing the world through his democratic lens.
The concept of beauty is often fixated on the extraordinary and the fantastic. Because we
constantly seek something that will take our breath away, we overlook objects and people
around us. Eggleston uproots this habit and puts the spotlight on the ordinary and the
monotonous. At first, we refused to see his art as anything other than a disturbance. We
demanded black and white photos of mountaintops and famous figures. But Eggleston was
never fazed by the agitation and continued his elegant, democratic gaze at the world around
him. He teaches us to appreciate things exactly as they are, and not taint them with
interpretations. He makes us notice the grace of an old pair of shoes but hushes our questions
about it, puzzling us with his ability to find so much beauty in one thing but not be hit by its
irresistible wonder. Art that causes divergence between its creators purpose and its viewers
perspective does not necessarily needs to be resolved; it should just be celebrated.

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Works Cited
Hagan, Sean O. "Out of the Oridnary." The Guardian. N.p., 24 July 2004. Web. 9 Dec. 2014.
Hale, Grace E. "Eggleston's South: "Always in Color"" Southern Spaces. N.p., 27 June 2013.
Web. 16 Oct. 2014.
Sampson, Tim. "William Eggleston." WILLIAM EGGLESTON. Eggleston Artist Trust, Mar.
1994. Web. 20 Oct. 2014.
Szarkowski, John. Introduction. William Eggleston's Guide. New York: Museum of Modern
Art, 2002. N. pag. Print.
Weski, Thomas. "The Tender-Cruel Camera." William Eggleston. Eggleston Artistic Trust,
1998. Web. 20 Oct. 2014.