National Portrait Gallery, London
Whether photographing celebrities or busboys, Eggleston’s work is both exact and indifferent, getting under your skin and changing how you see the world
Even if it is just a tract of Tennessee land, or a ceiling, or some trash on the ground, everything is a portrait in William Eggleston’s work. A portrait less of a moment than of a place and an age. Eggleston never diminishes what he sees but somehow enlarges both the momentous and the trivial. Some unknown pensive guy swallowing a burger and staring at it with a kind of avarice, a curator in a phonebooth, a bloke on a bed, a woman alone at the side of a long and empty road, a girlfriend in tears – each photograph is freighted with untold stories. You feel their weight along with the heat of the day, the stale air-conditioned chill in the room, the smell of smoke and beer and sweat in the nightclub, the car-seat vinyl, the instant’s lassitude.
Eggleston’s photography has been derided for its ordinariness, for its compositional blankness, even for its use of colour. This now seems absurd. How could his critics not see what was there – the things unrevealed but somehow unaccountably present? Eggleston’s photography gets under your skin, just as he got under the skin of Memphis (where he was born in 1939), of Tallahatchie County, of the south and of social situations, capturing both the discomposure and awkward indifference of his subjects.