William Eggleston and the Validation of Color Photography as Legitimate Art


William Eggleston didn’t invent color photography, but his landmark 1976 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art gave it dignity, and began the four-decade process of acceptance by curators and collectors as an art form to rival oil painting.

Shot in 1970, “Untitled (Memphis)” – shown above – was one of the 75 photos in the show, and also featured on the cover of the catalogue. Now it’s included in a retrospective of Eggleston’s early work at the Metropolitan.

To lend Eggleston’s work legitimacy – at a time when even black-and-white ‘art’ photography was still deemed suspect by many – the pioneering MoMA curator John Szarkowski wrote about the photos in language that would appeal to modern art aficionados. (In his phrasing, the images have “a lean, monocular intentness that fixes the subject as sharply as if it were recalled from eidetic memory.”)

It was a smart move, especially given that he couldn’t appeal to ‘craft’, as photography curators reflexively did in those days: Unlike the hand-processed black-and-white prints of Edward Steichen or Ansel Adams, these pictures were made in a lab using the dye-transfer technique developed for commercial advertising.

There was nothing artsy about their production. It was simply the best method for Eggleston to achieve the ultra-saturated effect he sought – and it was just what photography needed to become truly modern.

Eggleston’s ’70s sacrilege led to today’s epic c-prints by masters such as Andreas Gursky. Paradoxically photographers had to be unpainterly – appropriating industrial processes – in order for the public to see photography as the equal of painting.

About the author: Jonathon Keats is an artist and critic who has had his conceptual artwork exhibited in museums and galleries around the world. He regularly writes for Forbes in his Critic-at-Large column. More recently, Keats authored the book “Forged: Why Fakes are the Great Art of Our Age“. This article originally appeared on

Image credit: “Untitled (Memphis)”, 1970 by William Eggleston. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (2012.281). © Eggleston Artistic Trust

  • Jake

    Truth! Doesn’t matter if you think “Untitled (Memphis)” is a masterpiece or pretentious crap, millions of photographers owe a debt to this guy for legitimizing modern, alternative, color photographic art. You see the influence everywhere from galleries and museums to billboards and magazines.

  • Zos Xavius

    I’m not the biggest eggleston fan, but he paved the way. I don’t get why people hate this shot so much though. Its actually decent and interesting.

  • Mansgame

    I guess there are two schools of thought to art:
    1. “That didn’t take any skill! I could do that in 2 minutes”.
    2. “Well, you didn’t”.

    Personally, I’m closer to camp #1 and want to see someone do something that the average guy couldn’t have easily done but I understand point #2.

  • Jack

    It’s also an excellent photo.

  • DamianM

    They hate it because they misunderstand it.

  • D. David

    In regards to your point #1.

    They have done something that the average person couldn’t of done simply by seeing it. It doesn’t have to be an uber-technical 100hr masterpiece, which in my view is part of the beauty of photography.

  • Mansgame

    Well technically this is a very good picture too.

  • chou rave

    not being consensual is actually a great quality for an artist.
    Artists don’t create “pretty”, they express. And thus shock, provoke and push people out of their comfort zone.
    Eggleston is, in that regard and in many others, a great artist.

  • Zos Xavius

    Its good all around. Very interestng composition too.

  • ennuipoet

    I’ve never personally cared for Eggleston’s work, not because I don’t recognize the mastery they demonstrate, but rather they don’t move me emotionally. I give full credit to his game changing vision, recognize his ability, and agree he belongs in the pantheon of great American photographers; I just don’t like his work. This opinion and three bucks will get you a cup of coffee in NYC.

  • James

    You’re forgetting the 3rd school: “It’s actually really good.”