Eggleston Essay Excerpts

John Szarkowski wrote the essay for “William Eggleston’s Guide,” the catalog for the MoMA show he curated in 1976. (I learned recently that a decent copy may be worth $600.00 now.) Here are parts that don’t directly deal with the pictures in that show, but more with how John Szarkowski thinks of photography. It reads like a credo.

“Photography is a system of visual editing. At bottom, it is a matter of surrounding with a frame a portion of one’s cone of vision, while standing in the right place at the right time. Like chess, or writing, it is a matter of choosing from among given possibilities, but in the case of photography the number of possibilities is not finite but infinite. The world now contains more photographs than bricks, and they are, astonishingly, all different. Even the most servile of photographers has not yet managed to duplicate exactly an earlier work by a great and revered master.

“The reader can demonstrate the point by clicking off a roll with the family Instamatic or Leica without moving from his chair: point the machine at random this way and that, quickly and without thought. When the film is developed every frame will define a subject different from any defined before. To make matters worse, some of the pictures are likely to be marginally interesting. Even the automatic cameras that record the comings and goings in banks describe facts and relationships that surprise mere eye-witnesses.

“It is not easy for the photographer to compete with the clever originality of mindless, mechanized cameras, but the photographer can add intelligence. By means of photography one can in a minute reject as unsatisfactory ninety-nine configurations of facts and elect as right the hundredth. The choice is based on tradition and intuition – knowledge and ego – as it is in any art, but the ease of execution and the richness of the possibilities in photography both serve to put a premium on good intuition. The photographer’s problem is perhaps too complex to be dealt with rationally. This is why photographers prowl with such restless uncertainty about their motif, ignoring many potentially interesting records while they look for something else.


“Form is perhaps the point of art. The goal is not to make something factually impeccable, but seamlessly persuasive. In photography the pursuit of form has taken an unexpected course. In this peculiar art, form and subject are defined simultaneously. Even more than in the traditional arts, the two are inextricably tangled. Indeed, they are probably the same thing. Or, if they are different, one might say that a photograph’s subject is not its starting point but its destination.

“Gifted photographers, learning from the successes of their predecessors, quickly acquire the ability to recognize and anticipate certain aspects of subject matter, situation, perspective, and quality of light that might produce effective pictures. Original photographers enlarge this shared sense of possibilities by discovering new patterns of facts that will serve as metaphors for their intentions. The continuing, cumulative insights of these exceptional artists have formed and reformed photography’s tradition; a new pictorial vocabulary, based on the specific, the fragmentary, the elliptical, the ephemeral, and the provisional. This new tradition has revised our sense of what in the world is meaningful and our understanding of how the meaningful can be described.

“It could be said – it doubtless has been said – that such pictures often bear a clear resemblance to the Kodachrome slides of the ubiquitous amateur next door. It seems to me that this is true, in the same sense that the belles-lettres of a time generally relate in the texture, reference, and rhythm of their language to the prevailing educated vernacular of that time. In broad outline, Jane Austen’s sentences are presumably similar to those of her seven siblings. Similarly, it should not be surprising if the best photography of today is related in iconography and technique to the contemporary standard of vernacular camera work, which is in fact often rich and surprising. The difference between the two is a matter of intelligence, imagination, intensity, precision, and coherence.”

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