It has been a while since I've written about any photography books. Call me old fashioned but I would rather get lost in the pages of a book of photographs than flick through an Instagram feed or online gallery. I enjoy collecting monographs by photographers who inspire me and I especially love finding such treasures on the cheap at used book stores.
William Eggleston's Guide was such a find. I think I paid $5 for my copy. Eggleston is a name that I've frequently heard mentioned by other photographers. He is well known for his color photography using chrome slide film. While I had seen a few images online, I wasn't very familiar with his work when I stumbled across this book. After flipping through its pages, I almost put it back on the shelf. I have to admit - I just didn't get it. My initial impression was that the collection of images looked like someone had wandered around aimlessly snapping photos of random objects and people. Not really what I'd consider street, documentary, or journalistic photography. What the hell is this? Knowing that Eggleston is a photographer greatly respected by a lot of photographers that I respect, I put my initial feelings aside and came home with the book. Hard to argue the price and maybe it would have collector value someday, I rationalized.
I flipped through the book again that night at home. Still nothing stirred any sort of emotional response. Yawn. I put the book away on a shelf. As weeks passed, I'd get it out again and try to make sense of it. The only initial common thread to the images was the distinct look of the film Eggleston used - muted yet somehow vibrant. Certain colors stand out over others. The color is certainly a huge part of Eggleston's look. In fact, the more I looked at the photos, the less I could envision them being anything but those colors. I work a lot in black and white and I don't think these photos would work in monochrome. Maybe I'm wrong but I believe these photos have to be in color or they don't work - assuming they work at all for the viewer.
Why did he take these photos? Was there something of particular interest in these frames? Was he simply documenting the people, places, and things of his environment? The majority of the photos are images of things that are ordinary - almost incessantly so. Surely though, they must hold some special meaning to Eggleston. Or do they? Did he take these images because they captured a special interest or stirred a particular emotion - or were they simply the happenstance things that presented themselves in his environment, photographed simply because they existed then and there before him?
I reflected on my own photography, my personal work. Was I so different? My favorite thing to do is walk around town, preferably at night, and look for the interesting in the mundane. The more I thought about it, I tend to photograph things in my environment, sometimes without knowing exactly why. Maybe it's something unique or interesting that makes me stop and take the photo. Often it is something that apart from the way shadows and light interplay would hold no aesthetic value. Color can come into play as well. My Fujifilm X-T1 has a Classic Chrome film simulation that has some similarities to Eggleston's look. I've found myself using it almost exclusively for personal photography when I shoot in color.
Maybe the real takeaway from Eggleston's Guide is that if you stop and look around there is something to photograph wherever you are. Maybe there is "something" there in the most ordinary of places. We photographers can often be overheard bemoaning that there is nothing interesting to shoot. Woe is me - if only I had a lovely model, a beautiful landscape, perfect light... Perhaps that is the mental block that Eggleston sought to knock down with his photography.