Art: William Eggleston at the Art Institute

It’s a rare treat to see the life’s work — or much of it — of a living artist. Photographer William Eggleston (b. 1939) has been a quiet sensation since 1976, when his color photographs were the first ever to be shown at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Before that, color photography was the stuff of advertising and color spreads in national magazines.

egglestonEggleston’s color photographs crossed over into art even though his images center on the people, objects, storefronts found in rural and newly suburban America. A battered blue tricycle is the largest object in a suburban street scene. The trash beside a parked car is the same color as the car. Too, these photographs offer a record of America in the 1960s and 1970s: the rail-thin women, the hulking cars, the quiet gaze of a child reading a gun catalogue.

Color pops in Eggleston’s photographs because he used the arduous, and now obsolete, dye imbibition printing process. It’s worth going to this show to see, firsthand, how these prints differ from today’s methods. Astonishing.

He’d been photographing in black and white for years: why the switch? “I had wanted to see a lot of things in color because the world is in color.” Eggleston’s first color photograph (above) is a wonder of composition, warm and cold light, texture and shadow.

Eggleston became interested in photography as a university student; a turning point in his life came from reading Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “The Decisive Moment” a 1952 book on documentary photography. Endearingly, Eggleston moved to Paris, thinking he could create greatness there only. He returned empty handed, but realized his home, the American South, offered a wealth of material.

His choice of the everyday as subject springs from his notion that “nothing is more important or less important.” (Through May 23, Art Institute of Chicago).

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