Today it’s difficult to imagine, but in 1976 William Eggleston caused a scandal by showing colour pictures at MoMA - photography was only considered to be art if it was black and white. And then there was the subject matter : banal, trivial subjects from everyday life! Oh how times change ... Soon the ‘Los Alamos series’ by this pioneer of colour photography will be on view in Foam Fotografiemuseum Amsterdam. DAMNº sat down with Foam's curator Hinde Haest.
"The photographs in Los Alamos were all taken on various road trips through the southern and western states of America between 1965 and 1974," says Hinde Haest. "But they were never released; the negatives were somehow forgotten. Until they were dug up again by Walter Hopps, who had accompanied Eggleston on some of his trips - and who, when they arrived in Los Alamos, pointed out that this was the secret lab where the atomic bomb was developed. According to legend Eggleston replied: “You know, I'd like to have a secret lab like that myself!". The famous photographer has always remained enigmatic and was hard to pin down to (political) positions. Even in his series for Rolling Stone magazine about Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign, the photographer managed to only shoot ‘trivial subjects’. "His photos just seem to register while simultaneously suggesting more. Eggleston was sometimes in the eye of a storm of controversy even though he was not looking for it. He always remained faithful to himself, by photographing the world the way he saw it. That is a statement in and of itself." Eggleston became a cult figure in any case, primarily through his work but also with his personality. Remember Juergen Teller’s pictures of Eggleston with actress Charlotte Rampling for Marc Jacobs's Men’s campaign Spring Summer 2006. His excursion into the movies made his extra-curricular fame even greater.
But that’s another story – back to Los Alamos. The negatives were printed as a series in 2002. This was quite challenging, because Eggleston used a process that was mostly used for commercial advertising called ‘dye transfer printing’, which was an expensive, work intensive and complicated colour process. In the digital age very few laboratories still remain that are familiar with this dye transfer printing process, and supplies are scarce. "From one negative, three different matrices are created, each for a different colour of paint. These are printed one by one on the same sheet of baryte paper with a gelatin layer, where the beautiful colours merge. The result is subtle and nuanced. Now this all happens digitally, but it is quite impossible to achieve the same intense result. Eggleston started making his photos with dye transfer printing in 1972. He would become famous for it – or rather: he made dye transfer printing famous."
His first ever photo - a shot of a boy who is rolling shopping carts - is part of the Los Alamos series. "Clearly, Eggleston began experimenting with colour long before the controversial exhibition at MoMA. The controversy was also fuelled by the subjects of his pictures: a can on a engine cover, a garden gnome, a ceramic chicken, a plastic flower arrangement, road signs, and cars, lots of cars.” The exhibition image chosen by Foam, displays an image on the plane. "Something totally unspectacular turns into a mesmerising image. You expect a story." Perhaps that is the greatest charm of William Eggleston's work: it manages to make us daydream, even 50 years later.
Go daydreaming in the beautiful Amsterdam canal house where Foam is located. The Los Alamos series you see here, is on loan from the Ludwig Museum in Cologne which owns one of the seven existing portfolios made in 2002 .
Foam, Keizersgracht 609, Amsterdam, 17 March – 7 June.