Photography Lessons from William Eggleston
8 Things Photographers Can Learn from the Father of Color Photography
William Eggleston is credited as one of the pioneers of color photography. In a time where the fine art photography world was consumed with black and white, Eggleston's use of color, his snapshot-like aesthetic, and banal subject matter was received with some backlash.
Today, his influential role in popularizing color photography as an art form has helped inspire the tastes and styles of thousands of photographers since.
In this post, I want to share some lessons I've learned from both Eggleston's photographs and his story.
1. Find Inspiration
William Eggleston started out in black and white photography, but what drew him to color? What inspired his snapshot-style compositions?
"…I had a friend who had a job working nights at a photography lab where they processed snapshots and I'd go visit him because we were both night owls. I started looking at these pictures coming out – they’d come out in a long ribbon – and though most of them were accidents, some of them were absolutely beautiful, and I started spending all night looking at this ribbon of pictures … I started daydreaming about taking a particular kind of picture, because I figured if amateurs working with cheap cameras could do this, I could use good cameras and really come up with something.” (William Eggleston, source)
For me, looking at other people's photos is a huge source of inspiration for me. Whether scrolling through Instagram or Twitter, flipping through photo books, or walking through a gallery, being able to intentionally look at photographs I admire helps motivate me to shoot and also helps inform my style. (For example, it's hard to not want to take photos of houses at night after looking through Todd Hido's work.)
For Eggleston, these drugstore family photo album prints became his muse--encouraging him to try color and to achieve an appearance of effortless, in-the-moment compositions.
2. Photograph the Ugly
The story goes that Eggleston was one day complaining about living in Memphis, Tennessee. The whole place seemed boring to him, and he wondered how he'd be able to maintain a career in photography in a place so devoid of compelling subject matter. After Eggleston complained that everything around him was "ugly," his friend challenged him: "So photograph the ugly stuff."
Nowadays, the "ugly stuff" Eggleston photographed (the cars, street signs, and even bathrooms) evoke a sense of nostalgia from our modern perspective. It's important to remember, though, that in his day, this nostalgia factor wouldn't have been at play. Instead, his photos relied on vivid colors and unique compositions. They mimicked the effortlessness of the drugstore prints, but were critically compelling, if also sometimes challenging.
3. Photograph Democratically
Much can be (and has been) said about Eggleston's practice of photographing "democratically." This perspective treats everything as equally photographable. Nothing in the frame receives special treatment. The object you might expect to receive the focus of the photograph may be cut off, partially out of frame, or obscured by other things.
In this photo, neither the car nor bus appear in their entirety within the frame. The text on the building is almost rudely cut off. What are we left to focus on? The reflections in the windows, the shadows, lines, and blend of warm colors and light. We see that all that is tightly constrained within the frame is beautiful in its own right.
4. Be a Fly on the Wall
Eggleston has referred to his compositional style as something like a "fly's eye view." This contrasts with a photographer's natural tendency to take photos from eye-level. It's easier to bring a viewfinder up to your face and photograph as you see the world. And there's nothing wrong with that, either. Some of Eggleston's strongest--and most famous--photos, however, were made by considering a scene from a unique perspective.
Rather than taking all of his photos from eye-level, Eggleston considers what view a fly might see if it were buzzing around. Thinking this way can help inspire new ways of looking at the world and composing photographs.
5. Fill the Frame
Rosa Eggleston, William's wife, recounted in a video interview something he had told her about photography.
"Now you must not take anything for granted when you're looking at a picture. Never do that. Every single little tiny space on that page works and counts."
At first glance, many of Eggleston's photos feature a prominent subject. Without further attention and more intentional observation, the viewer might miss out on the other details within the frame.
The use of leading lines draws our eyes immediately to the lone subject of this photograph, the man crossing the street. This is more than a street portrait, however. The entire scene is detail rich, and if we take Eggleston at his word, and assume every minute detail is intentional, we begin to marvel at all that was able to be captured within the frame.
The bottom left corner is filled with a car headlight and chrome bumper, the top left with wires from the telephone pole, the leading lines vanishing into the corner. Off to the right of the frame, a pile of tires leans into a shaded corner. There's trash on the street and trees in the background, colorful flags, and lots to take in. This isn't a minimal photo. Each detail, even the trash on the oil-stained pavement, draws us into the scene. Rather than pointing the camera away from the powerlines to exclude them from the frame, we are left to ask why they were included, and what they add to the photo. Similarly, we might ask why some things weren't included.
Carefully deciding what to include and exclude in every part of a photograph makes composition more difficult, but more rewarding. Asking ourselves why photographers fill each frame the way that they do can help inspire our own compositions as well.
6. Take the Shot... Once
“Let me put it this way, I work very quickly and that's part of it. I only ever take one picture of one thing. Literally. Never two. So then that picture is taken and then the next one is waiting somewhere else.”
In the same documentary linked above, Eggleston elaborated on this statement.
“I would take more than one, and get so confused later. I was trying to figure out which was the best frame. I said, ‘this is ridiculous. I’m just going to take one.’”
I think many photographers can relate to his sentiment. Picking a favorite photo between two (or dozens) of similar shots can be challenging. While it's something of a myth that Eggleston followed this rule strictly, there is something to be said (and a lot to be learned) from the idea of taking just one photo.
When you know that you are only going to take one photo of a subject, you approach it differently. You take time to ensure that the composition is exactly how you imagine, and that you "get it right" on the first try. This approach is harder in our modern age of digital cameras, where you can "spray and pray" that one of the hundreds of photos you take is salvageable.
On film, which limits the amount of exposures you can take per roll, it can be easier to pace yourself, slow down, and take the photos once. Tyler Shields is a contemporary example of a photographer who only takes 1-2 photos of even extravagant fine art shoots. When so much rides on getting it right, well... you're more inclined to get it right.
Don't be afraid to bracket exposures in challenging lighting conditions, or to try out different compositions or angles. But slowing down, and composing with a slow and steady intentionality will help improve your photos.
7. Be Consistent
The idea that Eggleston never (or at least, rarely) took a photo of the same thing twice becomes all the more impressive when you consider the fact that the Eggleston Art Foundation manages some 50,000 negatives of his work (source). That's a lot of rolls of film, and countless hours of photo walks.
Eggleston's ability to walk out the door day after day and practice the craft of photography is a testament to consistency. Eggleston has dozens of photo books and has been featured in countless galleries. Published work notwithstanding, it seems likely that much of his work (50,000 negatives, remember?) hasn't been seen or shared.
I'm not saying that it takes 50,000 photos in order to come up with a collection as strong as Eggleston's, but I'm not saying it wouldn't do a photographer any good, either.
8. Enjoy Other Creative Outlets
In late 2017, William Eggleston announced that he was releasing his first musical album, a combination of piano and synthesizer entitled Musik.
At 78, having been heralded as one of the photography "greats," Eggleston says that he feels his true calling was music. Calling or not, and career success or not, being able to enjoy other creative outlets beyond photography seems to add to one's artistic fulfillment.
I enjoy playing piano myself, and creative writing was actually my first real passion. For me, photography was just a fun way of capturing moments until it became something more. I find that I write very visually and see imaginary scenes like movie sets in my mind as I write. Photography for me now is a way of preserving scenes like that in a much faster creative process.
Whatever other creative endeavors you enjoy, they are sure to help you become a better photographer--and being a photographer can likely help you apply creative frameworks to those other endeavors, too.
My own work is heavily inspired by William Eggleston, which is not anything unique in its own right. Lots of people draw inspiration from him and try to mimic his style by photographing old cars and diners.
Regardless of your own personal style of photography, however, I believe that the principles that I've learned and shared here from studying Eggleston's work can help you become a better photographer.
TL;DR: By finding inspiration in other artists' work, and consistently practicing photography, you begin to develop your own way of looking at the world. When composing a photograph, you can think intently about what you keep in and withhold from the frame. Try new angles and perspectives, don't wait for beautiful days or destinations to get out and shoot. Slow down and take photos with intention and purpose.
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About the Creator
Oliver Dahl is a published author and photographer from Boise, Idaho.
He currently studies marketing at Brigham Young University.
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