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Exhibit of the week: William Eggleston: Democratic Camera

William Eggleston's color photographs, which scandalized the art world when they were first exhibited in 1976, are now in a retrospective show at the Whitney Museum in New York.

Exhibit of the weekWilliam Eggleston: Democratic CameraWhitney Museum, New YorkThrough Jan. 25

In 1967, William Eggleston arrived in New York City “bearing a box of slides that would redefine photography,” said Rebecca Bengal in New York. The Memphis-based photographer created startling compositions of seemingly “banal” subjects from everyday life. “A dog walking down a street. A fire burning in a barbecue grill. A red ceiling.” Wandering the dive bars, parking lots, and shopping malls of his native South, he found “the grace, violence, and humor implicit in the mundane.” His aggressively raw photographs scandalized the art world when they were first exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, in 1976. Now, three decades later, he’s been vindicated by a triumphant retrospective at the Whitney.

What was most shocking about Eggleston’s photographs wasn’t their subject matter, said Holland Cotter in The New York Times. It’s that they were in color. “Thirty years ago photo­graphy was art if it was black and white.” Eggleston’s images, by contrast, were rendered in supersaturated, hallucinatory hues created with printing processes usually reserved for advertisements. “From a custard-yellow sunset glow slanting across a wall to high-noon whiteness bleaching a landscape to pink lamplight suffusing a room,” such colors quite literally had never before been seen on museum walls. Yet for all their vibrancy, there’s a dark strain of morbidness running through his work. “In many of these images color has the artificial flush of a mortician’s makeup job.” Pictures of gravestones recur frequently, and a series of photos taken at Elvis’ Memphis estate, Graceland, “depicts the singer’s home as an airless, windowless tomb”—like that of a Pharaoh with supremely bad taste.

These days, Eggleston is “famous, influential, even venerated,” said Richard Lacayo in Time. He has influenced an entire generation of photographers who came after him, and the art world now abounds in gaudily colored photographs documenting everyday life. Yet Eggleston retains something most of his imitators lack: sincerity. “There’s nothing camp or ironic about Eggleston’s work.” Rather than sneer at the ugly detritus that clutters up our modern world, he turns it into something haunting and beautiful. “William Eggleston didn’t just make color respectable. He made banality seem, well, colorful.”

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