Few contemporary photographers command the sort of reverence that William Eggleston does. His deeply-coloured images of life in the Deep South provoke awe yet unnerve. Forty years after a seminal New York exhibition established his reputation, the National Portrait Gallery has gathered many of his best-known works for an exhibition titled simply Portraits.
Born into a wealthy family in Memphis, Tennessee, Eggleston was introspective and reflective from a young age. His childhood hobbies included drawing and collecting cut-outs from magazines; as a teenager in boarding school, he eschewed his milieu's athletic focus in favour of art. Enrolling in several universities without taking a degree, Eggleston's interest in photography blossomed after a friend gave him a Leica.
A pivotal moment occurred after reading Henri Cartier-Bresson's The Decisive Moment. Inspired by the French master's use of light, Eggleston devoted himself to the discipline. Initially working in black-and-white, by the 60s he had begun experimenting with colour Kodachrome film, at the time seen as an inferior form ill-fitted to artistic pursuits. Without the financial imperative to work, Eggleston spent the decade slowly developing his style in relative obscurity.
The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) precipitated a turning point in Eggleston's career. In 1969, he arrived to meet the Museum of Modern Art's pioneering photography curator John Szarkowski with a suitcase of images. He persuaded the gallery to buy a piece, enshrining Eggleston as a significant force. By 1973 he had secured a teaching post at Harvard, where he discovered dye-transfer printing - a process often used in advertising to turn black-and-white photographs into coloured prints. The deep hued images Eggleston produced by this technique were like little that had been seen before.
In 1976, MoMA exhibited Eggleston's recent work, in what has retrospectively been considered a breakthrough for colour photography. While previous polychromatic work had often used colour to draw viewers in, Eggleston uses it to magnify his image's strangeness. Buoyed into success, he began producing series after series of finely-observed images, often of individuals from the Deep South. This subject matter remains largely unchanged today.
Like many photographic artists, Eggleston has long been drawn towards outsiders, although these have never been the exclusive object of his lens. Less commonly, Eggleston himself is a confirmed eccentric who often finds himself drawn into the worlds of his subject. He spent a few years installed in the counterculture-associated Chelsea Hotel with Viva, one of Andy Warhol's superstars. While living with the late Lucia Birch, his long-term partner, Eggleston used to stymie boredom by shooting antique shotguns around his house at night, leaving scores of holes in the walls.
At times, his work shades into the surreal. His 1984 series Graceland, created at the invitation of Priscilla Presley, depicts Elvis' residence as a crypt-like concatenation of taste so poor as to seem impossible. The 1989 photobook The Democratic Forest imbued mundane objects - empty soda bottles, vending machines, types, parking meters - with a sense of numerousness that supersedes mere earthly things. Eggleston's work gives off the impression that he is able to see more deeply into things than his beholders.
Interviewed in The Guardian, the fashion photographer Juergen Teller discussed Eggleston's singular style. "What has always intrigued me about Eggleston is that he seems so completely free. It's like he doesn't give a damn about anything, what people think least of all. It's almost arrogant, but it's more than that. It's a really rare thing to be that free, and you can feel it from his work."
Free and open, quotidian in subject yet expansive in execution, transforming the captured world into something more than itself, Eggleston's images are a unique contribution to American photography.