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William Eggleston Exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery

Time Out reviews the William Eggleston Exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery until 23rd October 2016

©William Eggleston

©William Eggleston

Legendary Memphis photographer William Eggleston has created a whole genre of psychologically ambiguous Americana, much of it centred on apparently mundane bits of his home town. I expected that isolating his portraits from the rest of his work wouldn’t work. How would they fare, without all those existential landscapes and unanswered questions to problematise them? In fact, this show really makes you realise all over again this man’s extraordinary genius and oddness.

Two photos in this show, both from the early 1970s, really nail the whole Eggleston thing. The first is a tiny photobooth black-and-white self-portrait. In it, Eggleston seems remote: a fine-boned, bespectacled, Mahleresque face, a foppish college scarf, one of those monied, long-all-over haircuts. The second is a photo of his friend, weirdo Memphis dentist TC Boring. Boring is in the house in which he would later be murdered and incinerated. He is standing naked in a moment of reflection. The bedroom is blood red, with ‘God’ and ‘Tally Ho!’ sprayed on the wall. The colour hums, as though the print itself were struggling to keep Boring alive: it’s terrible, hilarious, disturbing and uncontrived, all at the same time. How did that man take this photo?

It’s one thing to imply alienation and dread with a grim motel room or a deserted parking lot. It’s quite another to manage to do so – as Eggleston does here – in a picture of your nephew sitting at home in an armchair. A portrait of the dead blues musician Fred McDowell in his casket is way less troubling than a shot of Eggleston’s wife taking a nap on a bed in front of a buzzing untuned TV and a sinister open closet. Time and again, Eggleston shows us that a picture of a person is never a simple thing.

This is not a big show, for a man who is supposed to have taken more than a million photographs, but I could spend a week in it, happily. Or a year. You have to see Eggleston’s work edited in this way. And you have to see his photos in the flesh (including Mr Boring’s knob). If I could give it six stars, I would.

©William Eggleston

©William Eggleston

©William Eggleston

©William Eggleston

National Portrait Gallery

St Martin’s Place
London
WC2H 0HE
020 7306 0055
Contact us

Opening hours

Daily 10.00 – 18.00
Thursdays and Fridays until 21.00.
Last admission to the exhibition is one hour before the Gallery closes.
Exiting commences ten minutes before the closing time.

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4 responses to “William Eggleston Exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery

  1. Jane Buekett September 22, 2016 at 12:49 pm

    I was just debating with myself whether to take my nephew to see this tomorrow when I saw your post.

  2. Jane Buekett September 26, 2016 at 9:16 pm

    I did go, and it was interesting, but not worth a trip to London just for this, and not 6 stars. I have been to Eggleston shows that I have liked better. There are some amazing pictures, others that are just a bit ‘so what?’ This exhibition includes some explanations of who the subjects are, but really this adds nothing. It is just a distraction, as text so often is in exhibitions. Keep the title as ‘Untitled’ and you have to look at the picture. I don’t agree with Chris Waywell about the two images he so loved, but I am thinking of changing my name to T C Boring. Fantastic.

    I liked seeing his little proof prints. That is what I used to do, once.

    • oxfordschoolofphotography September 29, 2016 at 11:50 am

      thank you for giving a more rounded view, it is often that critics find things to shout about that the rest of us say, ‘really, so what’. I completely agree about text, just something for people to read who don’t look at pictures.

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