I will never forget the first time I saw a photograph by William Eggleston. It was the Los Alamos exhibition at the SFMoMA; I was sixteen, a time when the only thing I could do to mask the uncertainty I felt about the world was with an all too common teenage bravado. But as I walked through the rooms, every ounce of the know-it-all in me fell away; I had never seen the world look the way it did in those photographs. The curiosity, devotion, and nonchalance all shone through the unworldly vibrancy of each dye-transfer print. It feels trite to say that he taught me how to see, but it also seems like an understatement. Now as a somewhat less uncertain adult, I was able to relive with the same sense of awe I felt as a teenager while viewing William Eggleston: New Dyes, the current exhibition at RoseGallery in Los Angeles.
Selected from the same group of Kodachrome slides from which John Szarkowski curated Eggleston’s first show at The Museum of Modern Art in 1976, the images were printed by Guy Stricherz and Irene Mali, two of the last practitioners of the dye-transfer process, and it makes all the difference. There is a time and place for just about any medium to be used, but art really stands the test of time when the artist uses the most appropriate materials for each specific project. Eggleston, master of color and composition, rightfully began printing his 35mm slides with the dye-transfer process, which requires using three printing layers, (one for each subtractive color), to produce an unparalleled spectrally pure image.
The resulting photographs glow with saturation, then are unexpectedly combined with subjected matter so seemingly mundane. That is Eggleston’s gift. He takes everyday minutia and elevates it to such levels of grandeur one could hardly imagine the images were taken in our backyards, on our streets and in our living rooms; he reminds us that the world surrounding us is full of wonder.
In the introduction to Eggleston’s The Democratic Forest, Eudora Welty wrote that “he sets forth what makes up our ordinary world. What is there, however strange, can be accepted without question; familiarity will be what overwhelms us.” It is that unrelenting familiarity that draws you into the image and makes you want to look as deeply as Eggleston looks at the world. And, as if to reward the viewer for their hard work, he subtly hides small secrets in the edges and backgrounds; on signs and buildings and in the relationships between objects.
Before visiting the gallery, I wondered why these images were not chosen for the original show in the 1970s; are they the rejects? The answer to that is a resounding no. Each image holds its own unique view into the world just as the images we are familiar with. The images have the quiet contemplation of a person walking around with a camera and documenting the tiny dramas and narratives fill the frames and our lives. They are reminders that amidst every other chaotic thing, there is beauty.