William Eggleston’s Guide

I picked up a copy of “William Eggleston’s Guide” a few years ago after seeing the exhibition of his portraits at the National portrait Gallery. Although I’d been aware of him ever since buying Big Star’s “Radio City” may years ago, at the time I bought the book I was still thinking about his portrait work rather than the book itself. Since then I’ve returned to it on occasion and still find it enigmatic and hard to get a handle on.

Geoff Dyer’s comment about likening Eggleston to a Martian seems to me to be too glib; as if he has the same problem I do with trying to get a handle on these images. John Szarkowski’s introduction makes a more convincing – albeit long-winded – attempt at trying to apply some contextual framework to the set. Szarkowski says we can see “uncompromisingly private experience described in a manner that is retrained, austere and public” (Eggleston,2002:11). They do not seem overtly designed as art, but nor are they simple snapshots. All are from Eggleston’s world, southern USA, and often feature friends and relatives. As such they are reminiscent of any family album – except there is much more of an outsider’s view than one would expect. This aspect does tie in with Dyer’s ‘Martian’ remark but the combined effect is one where the photographs are simultaneously both inside and outside views. Strange and familiar at the same time.

Colour very much helps to ground these in the familiar; black and white would push them much more into the self-consciously ‘art’ world of form and texture. Eggleston’s chosen human subjects often possess a static quality that emphasises the idea of a moment in time; there is very little movement either depicted or implied. However the naturalness of the colours grounds the images in the everyday and reduces this static quality. In a way these predict the work that Jeff Wall and Gegory Crewdson have gone on to produce with their constructed images.


Eggleston, W. (2002) William Eggleston’s Guide. (Facsimile Ed edition) (s.l.): The Museum of Modern Art, New York.       

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