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October 2, 2008

© Anne Turyn, 12-17-1960, from 'Flashbulb Memories' (1986)

“Colour expands a photograph’s palette and adds a new level of descriptive information and transparency to the image. It is more transparent because one is stopped less by the surface – colour is more like how we see. It has added description because it shows the colour of light and the colours of a culture or an age. While made in the 1980s, the palette of this image by Anne Turyn seems to date the picture a generation earlier.”

From ‘The Nature of Photographs by Stephen Shore (Phaidon 2007) p.18.


Yet, while I was recently watching The Genius of Photography (Episode 4) it came as a pleasant surprise to hear how William Eggleston was described as unreadable. This is the photographer of course, who brought serious colour photography into the mainstream art world (see for example a review by Photo Book Guide).

Eggleston’s pictures, the narrator in the BBC programme argues, “contained all the acute observations of a master street photographer like Winogrand, but their brightly coloured surfaces make them as unreadable as Ed Bouche’s gas stations. Eggleston, a man of few words, has called his pictures democratic, adding he is at war with the obvious.”


Some of the subtle meanings contained in these sentences, and ideas about the uses of colour, were revealed in what followed, a dialogue between John Gossage and Martin Parr while they were driving around Memphis:

“JG: He took colour at face value. Bill said, if I just make the colour a higher key, the structure in the picture cannot work… and still do realistic subject-matter, still do the real world.

MP: Do you think that he is literally saying that to himself?

JG: Yeah.. I mean he extrapolated the whole idea… If pictures need to be structured, how does one structure a colour picture because colour is more dominant.. One little red stop-light up there (pointing to the traffic lights) trumps this whole large volume area of green

© William Eggleston, from 'William Eggleston's Guide' (MoMA 1976)

There is one of a shower stall, there would be absolutely nothing. It’s sort of this bilious green.. and a dreadful pink.. and it’s shot in flash.. and it feels.. because of the colour.. like it’s a shower in Auschwitz or something… It is some Holiday Inn somewhere.. I mean, the colour being able to twist the whole content…

MP: Psychological colour

JG: Yeah..”

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