The photos on the walls are mundane. That’s the whole point; they are the images of lives as they were lived, in the 60s and 70s in Memphis, in Mississippi, in bed sits and night clubs and blank hotel rooms. They are images of family, of cars, of boys with Saturday jobs, women in heavy floral prints, men in flares. There is a photo of a woman crying up-close, raw-eyed and despairing, and there is the iconic red image of a middle-aged man standing naked in a red room under a bare red light bulb (a dentist friend of the photographers, later murdered in that house in mysterious circumstances).
This is the democratic all-seeing eye of William Eggleston, currently on exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery with a selection of unposed portraits from the Sixties onwards, covering his early black and white work and then his move into colour and the bright pigments and dyes he used later. A particularly striking, personal photo is of his wife and two young children on an autumnal field, a backwash of browns and yellows with his wife and the baby she’s holding dressed in jarring scarlet, a slash of bright colour against the fading trees. There’s something in there about moments that last forever in a world that cycles on, but Eggleston is a man who has always insisted there is no symbolism, no planned deeper meaning in his work. That does not, of course, make the pictures meaningless, but rather highlights the Rorschach test quality of any art, that the meaning is what you see in it.
In this media heavy age, where we see thousands of images a day, when magazines reel out shot after shot of beautiful people and beautiful things in beautiful settings (yours for £199 a month plus VAT), a visit to a photographic exhibition is a refresher course in seeing. Skirting the calm white walls and peering into each wakeful image you remember these are real people doing real things, and they deserve a little time to stop and look. Because isn’t the point of photography to capture a moment as it passes, and to let us look back at it and shake our heads. In sadness, in nostalgia, in envy, in amusement, in wonder.
I could say go see this because of his pioneering use of colour, light and focus, or because of the clothes people wear, because of the looks on the people’s faces. Because they’re not people who are used to taking photos in nightclubs and there are no pouts. Because it’s a trip into the history of the American South. Because it will remind you of Twin Peaks and Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper is the subject of one photo, driving a car with a cowboy hat tilted back from his eyes and a cigarette in hand). All of those are good reasons, solid reasons, but in the end you should go see these pictures because it’s a reminder of more than that time and place, it’s a reminder of what photography can be if you stop to look, and it’s a reminder that the little things happening around you now are, in their own way, as beautiful and iconic and bold as Eggleston’s photographs.