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William Eggleston’s Guide – Szarkowski’s essay

Source of featured image: guardian.com

I read John Szarkowski’s 1966 book, The Photographer’s Eye with interest (blog post here) and had previously looked into the 1976 William Eggleston’s Guide (the Guide) (blog post here) to study Eggleston’s work, but I hadn’t then paid much attention to Szarkowski’s essay in the Guide.

I was interested to read the later essay to understand whether there was any shift in Szarkowski’s approach to analysis, which was firmly rooted in the narrative of the photos and not concerned with context. The essay in the Guide understandably dedicates a good deal of page-space to a discussion of the merits of colour photographs in relation to black and white – it accompanied what was the first exhibition of colour photographs in MoMA. However, I was more interested in the analysis of Eggleston’s work itself.

Szarkowski is quick to dismiss any thoughts of wide discussion of context, ‘it would be convenient if one could claim, or suggest, that this book of photographs answers, or contributes to the answer of , some large social or cultural question … The fact is that Eggleston’s pictures do not seem concerned with large questions of this sort’. Instead, Szarkowski focuses on the aesthetics of the form and content of the photos and the precision with which the two are combined. There is also a discussion of ‘the thing itself’ or the subject matter for the images.

So Szarkowski does not explore the broader context of the work, which I find interesting in itself as he curated the exhibition at MoMA and one would imagine that Eggleston would have been happy to share contextual information, given the auspicious occasion. However, Szarkowski says ‘pictures do not seem concerned with large questions’ as if he has not discussed with Eggleston, or otherwise the notably difficult Eggleston did not cooperate with a response. I find some support for the latter possibility in later interviews with Eggleston, in particular in a discussion with Sean O’Hagan, in which  Eggleston says:

‘A picture is what it is,’ he says when I ask him why he no longer wishes to talk about individual photographs, ‘and I’ve never noticed that it helps to talk about them, or answer specific questions about them, much less volunteer information in words. It wouldn’t make any sense to explain them. Kind of diminishes them. People always want to know when something was taken, where it was taken, and, God knows, why it was taken. It gets really ridiculous. I mean, they’re right there, whatever they are.’

I’ve made a note to myself to not attempt any formal reading of Eggleston’s photographs – researching context could prove to be difficult!


Aitken D (2013). The Source – William Eggleston (video interview). Available from: http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/video/doug-aitken-source-william-eggleston [accessed 28.3.16]

Eggleston W (1976). William Eggleston’s Guide (2002 edition)New York, The Museum of Modern Art.

MoMA Press release (1976). Available from: http://www.americansuburbx.com/2016/01/william-eggleston-ny-moma-press-release-1976.html [accessed 28.3.16]

O’Hagan S (2004). The Guardian [online]. Out of the ordinary. Available from: ://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2004/jul/25/photography1 [accessed 28.3.16]

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