Eggleston’s Portraits at the NPG – A Study Visit

Exhibition: William Eggleston Portraits 
Date: Saturday 1 October 2016 @ 11:00am

On Saturday, 1 October 2016, I went to the National Portrait Gallery to see the William Eggleston Portraits exhibition, London, 21 July – 23 October 2016.  This was a study visit arranged by the Open College of the Arts and lead by OCA tutor  Jayne Taylor.

Image credit: Photographs courtesy of OCA Student Amano Tracy

This was one of the best study visits I have been on so far.  The discussions were engaging and after 7 months of being on the course I felt I could actually participate positively and give an opinion on some of the aspects discussed and also to raise thoughts for discussion.  I have a long way to go but it’s starting to make sense which is a great feeling.  Now back to the exhibition….

William Eggleston (b: 1939)

William Eggleston is, as he is still alive, a pioneering American photographer renowned for his poetic mysterious images. One of his most notable photographs is The Red Ceiling which presents us with a bare light-bulb hanging down from a red ceiling. There are a couple of schools of thought on this, the lovers and the haters. I probably fit into the latter, as to me it seems more like a documentary photograph but I’m still on level one of my degree course so what do I know…. but I think there might be some context I am missing at the moment.

The exhibition has 100 of Eggleston’s photographs from the 1960s to present day. Most of the photographs in the exhibition are colour however there are a number of black and white images which are interesting and hold their own amongst the rich colours that Eggleston is known for.

The deadpan aesthetic is used a lot in his work and although there are some photographs where the subject is smiling or pulling a strange face, most are straight-faced. A number of the photographs have been taken either without the subject knowing or by surprise and this is probably why their expressions are such.

I enjoyed the varied portraits that he had taken and particularly his nightclub series. This is because I am interested in both flash photography and close portrait/headshot style photography. The focus points Eggleston used were at times not where you would expect compared to a typical portrait photo of today, where you would normally focus on the nearest eye of the subject. Instead in one of the pictures Eggleston focused on the eye furthest away which meant the one at the front was out of focus as he used a shallow depth of field. This is curious as if he was using flash he possibly could have used a smaller aperture, slower shutter speed to get a greater depth of field but he chose not to. I think it is these choices that separates Eggleston from other photographers of his time. He is also known for being a ‘one and done’ photographer i.e. for taking only one photograph of his subject/situation so maybe it is this choice that means he doesn’t strive to get that perfect shot which gives his photographs an edge.

The other aspect I enjoyed about Eggleston’s work shown in the exhibition was his use of colour.  Eggleston was one of the pioneers of colour photography and used a method where by he split the negatives out into three coloured filters red, green and blue (RGB) and transferred them onto transfers of cyan, magenta and yellow (CMYK). Would he be famous had he not been one of the fore-runners in the process of colour photography?  I’m not sure.

The colour photographs in the exhibition largely consist of greens, browns and red tones. It may well have been as a result of the colour film and processing that was available, and that he was using, around the early 70s which influenced his colour palette but the fact that he continued to use these colours in his later work feels more like an aesthetic choice. The colouration he used, I think, gives his photographs a cinematic feel.

He conforms to the usual compositional rules such as rule of thirds,complimentary shadows, pairings, mimicking body language to name a few. The largest print in the exhibition is Untitled 1969-70 (a lot of Eggleston’s photographs in the exhibition are untitled) a photograph which depicts a car parked in what appears to be a rural area, driver at the wheel, with the car door open and two men standing beside the car looking in the direction the car is facing. Both of the men are facing and standing in the same way and this made it hard for me to believe that this was a ‘one and done’ image in the sense of capturing a fleeting point in time, this must have been painstakingly set up /staged to get the men in exactly the same position/pose.

I was also interested in why the curator had hung a number of large prints very high up in such a small room so it meant you had to stand back away from the photographs almost on the other side of the room with your head cranked back to actually view them, individually or as a whole set/sequence. It seemed as though more space could have been assigned to avoid this but maybe this was done on purpose.

The one photograph I was particularly interested in was one of Eggleston’s girlfriend, Marica Hare, laying on the grass with her brownie camera. He had used his special colour technique to make the colours come alive and he also used a shallow depth of field, which meant his girlfriend’s face as well as her arm were in focus. The focus in this image does not seem to follow the depth of field path and seems to be sharp in non-corresponding areas. That said the concept and colour pallet works well.

Another take away for me from the exhibition was Eggleston’s method of selection and sequencing his photographs for presentation. He would print them out in a smaller format and arrange them in different formations to see which formation worked best. He also asked others to give their opinion on the sequencing. Something we could all employ especially via the OCA Level 1 Photography Facebook page.

I could keep writing about Eggleston’s photography as there is so much to say, and I probably will in a future blog post, but for now I must stop.


2016. William Eggleston Portraits – Exhibition. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 01 October 2016].

WILLIAM EGGLESTON – William Eggleston’s Guide (Intro). 2016. WILLIAM EGGLESTON – William Eggleston’s Guide (Intro). [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 01 October 2016].

WILLIAM EGGLESTON. 2016. WILLIAM EGGLESTON. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 01 October 2016].

Originally published 5 October 2016.
Amended 2 March 2017 to correct a typo.


2 thoughts on “Eggleston’s Portraits at the NPG – A Study Visit

  1. Chas Bedford

    The reason for the unusual focusing in the Marcia Hare image is that he was using a large-format camera with movements, so he could move the plane of focus around. Nowadays, you could do it with tilt-shift or a Lensbaby.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s