It’s officially called Untitled, but anyone with an interest in American cinema will recognise that half-profile in a heartbeat. It’s Dennis Hopper, star of Easy Rider and Blue Velvet, behind the wheel, shot in the early seventies. As with many of William Eggleston’s photographs, it seems like a still from a movie, a frozen moment captured from a larger narrative. This isn’t the counter-culture Hopper from Easy Rider, it is the actor in a setting familiar from Deep South where Eggleston (b. 1939) grew up – the pick-up truck, the well-worn cowboy hat, the casually held cigarette, the CB radio and the wide-open spaces beyond the spattered windscreen. This was about the time that Hopper was making his ill-fated The Last Movie, which dealt in part with the artifice of storytelling and the boundaries between fact and fiction, and here he could well have slipped into his character of the horse-wrangler “Kansas”.
Hopper, no mean photographer himself, later said: “In Bill's work the common is no longer common. His colour jumps off the page. This is colour photography at its finest and simplest. [He] visited me in my wilderness log cabin in Taos, New Mexico. We shot guns and took pictures and laughed a lot at the state of the union."
The word “colour” is key to Eggleston’s reputation as a photographic pioneer. His interest in photography began at college in Nashville in the late fifties, when one friend urged him to buy a camera (from a shop called Dury’s, which still exists) and another later gifted him his first Leica. In the early years he was shooting black and white, but by the mid-sixties he had switched to colour. Shooting colour film back then was seen as something of a poor relation to “arty” black and white. When he met his hero Cartier-Bresson, the great man was less than impressed with the format, as Eggleston later recalled: “He said something to me like, "Don't you think it's ridiculous?" If so, I spent an awful lot of years wasting my time.”
As the exhibition that covers his life’s work at London’s National Portrait Gallery shows, his career has been far from wasted. It includes some fascinating early portraits in black-and-white (sometimes using spy cameras to give the feel of grainy surveillance shots) but it is Eggleston’s images of the everyday rendered in supersaturated colour – think the boldest Technicolor – that still grab the attention. It is easy to see why he inspired a generation to challenge the hegemony of monochrome. As Martin Parr once put it, William Eggleston gave “us in Europe the faith and the confidence to use colour."
However, it isn’t just the vibrancy produced by the complex (and now moribund) dye-transfer process he favoured that impresses, it is the composition and the subjects. Superficially these are straightforward shots of friends and families at work and play in the hothouse climate of the South, of supermarkets and gas stations, backyard barbecues and abandoned tricycles, the ordinary and the mundane. They could come across as sentimental, but look again and there is something unsettling about them, for behind the images there lurks a sense of unease and secrets not quite revealed. It is little surprise to learn that director David Lynch, who loves photographing derelict buildings, is a fan. Catch the show at the NPG while you can – it includes the previously unseen Hopper image - and relish the work of a master who subverts the quotidian in glorious polychrome.