William Eggleston portraits at the National Portrait Gallery

Words by
Robert Sutton-Mattocks

16th September 2016

A new exhibition explores American photographer William Eggleston's distinguished career with 100 works that capture life at its most brilliant and mundane.

The iconic American photographer William Eggleston once said; “Now you must not take anything for granted when you are looking at a picture. Never do that. Every single little tiny space on that page works and counts.” It is a philosophy every bit as valuable when we take our eyes away from the lens.


At the National Portrait Gallery in London, a new exhibition dedicated to Eggleston’s work is punctuated with snapshots of daily life in small town America. There are perms and exuberant 1970’s fashion in vibrant abundance. His work expresses how a seemingly quotidian journey can reveal a treasure trove of photographic inspiration. An evening shopping trip could provide more than the ingredients for your supper, as captured in a stunning image of a young supermarket worker pushing a stack of trollies; his swept-back blond hair illuminated in the golden evening light. The Nightclub Portraits channel the retro glamour of early morning revellers, one image highlights the increasing democratisation of fashion of the 1970’s, where a nameless club-goer in his gladrags can look as every bit as glamorous as one of the photographer’s own celebrated friends, which included such luminaries as Andy Warhol and actor Denis Hopper. However, Eggleston doesn’t search for the extraordinary or unusual; he doesn’t look for decisive moments, but captures the inherent beauty of the everyday and the ordinary person.

Now you must not take anything for granted when you are looking at a picture. Never do that

Eggleston has never left his hometown of Memphis, having lived there for more than 75 years. Photography pilgrims make the journey to his hometown expecting a photogenic wonderland – many are surprised by the sheer mundanity of it, even its ugliness. This is the genius of his work; making people re-evaluate their sense of place, delve deeper into their environs and appreciate the small things around them.

Other highlights on show include the photographer’s 1978 sketchbook, which provides an insight into a profoundly creative mind. The pages are awash with colour and reflect Eggleston’s fascination with abstract expressionism and the artist Wassily Kandinsky. Moreover, the presence of his early black and white images help to contrast the revolutionary impact of colour photography.

The National Portrait Gallery exhibition features many hitherto unseen works, which are usually closely guarded in Eggleston’s private collection. It is a rare opportunity to see them on public display, and a privilege to glimpse the genius of such a pioneering photographic portraitist.

William Eggleston Portraits runs at the National Portrait Gallery, St Martin’s Place until 23rd October 2016.