While today we are not surprised to see the field of photography tackle the vernacular, when William Eggleston first used his immediate environment as artistic material, he inevitably placed himself on the fringes of photographic practice at the time. His work is often stunning in its simplicity and uses true yet exaggerated colour to capture life as it was, with scenes in decline permanently preserved.

William Eggleston (1939-) spent some of his childhood years with his grandparents while his father served in World War II. His grandfather was an amateur photographer, owned several cameras and had his own darkroom, where he produced his prints. When he was ten, Eggleston was given a simple box camera but the pictures taken with it provided a disappointment: “I took some pictures of my dog, but they weren’t very good and I was completely disenchanted with the idea of taking pictures” he later recalled. He was very introverted and spent most of his childhood alone playing the piano, drawing, and collecting visual media. Eggleston studied at a variety of art schools and universities over many years, without actually finishing any degrees. In 1957 he got his first camera, a Canon rangefinder, which he soon traded in for a Leica. After this, he started finding his own direction.

While studying art he was introduced to abstract expressionism by painter, Tom Young. At first, he found painting to be the much more interesting medium, as he found most photography simple and boring. Then he saw the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank, which changed his outlook on photography as something that could be art. He started photographing his surroundings initially in black and white. He knew he could take “perfect fake Cartier-Bressons” but quickly realised he needed to turn toward the contemporary.

He complained to Young that he didn’t really like his immediate surroundings, who in turn suggested this might be a reason to take pictures in the first place. He began to photograph the mundane; bars, gas stations, ceilings and everyday objects - like sinks, freezers and even food. “Objects in photos are naturally full of human presence” he once explained when someone commented on the scarcity of human beings in his images.

Eggleston began experimenting with colour in 1965 after being introduced to the medium by William Christenberry. Colour slide film soon became his chosen medium for its saturation.

From 1966 to 1974, Eggleston worked with Walter Hopps on an ambitious undertaking - the first colour project, which as to earn him a Guggenheim Fellowship. The title came to him during the trip: Los Alamos. This series of long trips through the American South, crossing it from east to west, was interrupted by his work for his now infamous MoMA exhibition.

In 1967 Eggleston met with John Szarkowski of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Szarkowski was a risk taker, who allowed photography to be itself and show itself without being couched in the rubric of philosophical or moral positions. In addition to the rediscovery of classical photographers like Brassaï, Walker Evans and Henri Cartier-Bresson, to whom he dedicated large retrospectives during their lifetimes, Szarkowski also exhibited younger photographers whom he considered to be rebelling against the common and established positions and working with a new language. Among them were Diane Arbus, Lee Friendlander, Garry Winogrand and of course William Eggleston. They no longer documented in a classical sense but rather demonstrated an unconventionally formulated authenticity to their photography. Many considered their attitude a provocative refusal during a time where photojournalism with reportage was in its final bloom before television took over this job.

Szarkowski encouraged Eggleston to stick with colour and after a few years offered him an exhibition at MoMA. The 1976 publication of his first book, William Eggleston’s Guide, and the MoMA exhibition, Photographs by William Eggleston, were at the time largely misunderstood yet crowned the discovery of the photographer’s work.

Eggleston had discovered dye-transfer printing in the late sixties. This had only been used for commercial prints for things like cigarette packs, but the colour saturation and quality of ink was like nothing he’d seen. During the process, colours can be defined individually and their saturation altered. He immediately fell in love with the look when he applied the dye-transfer process to his own images. The printing was expensive hence its usual commercial use, but it gave that “Eggleston touch” and resulted in some of his most famous work.

When Szarkowski crowned Eggleston “the inventor of colour photography” the public reaction was largely critical, both of the seemingly trivial subject matter and the expensive method of producing prints. Eggleston continued to experiment after the exhibition. He used a large-format camera in order to create situational portraits with black and white sheet film. He also returned to his long-term project “Los Alamos”, once more using the greatly improved colour negative film.

Eggleston’s focus ordinary American life, with which he had a kind of love-hate relationship, has left a legacy of immediately associating certain objects with his work. The combination of his special way of looking at things and his specific composition gives rise to an individual visual language whose recurring elements create a style which, via this recognition, reveals Eggleston as the originator of these images. The consistent use of this style has left us unable to look at certain motifs in the same way again. On any trip through the American landscape we can point at many subjects and say: “Look, Eggleston!”