ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
William Eggleston is often called the father of color photography. Eggleston's subject matter is distinctly American. As the writer Eudora Welty described it, old tires, Dr. Pepper machines, discarded air conditioners. Almost a half century of Eggleston's photographs are now on display at the Corcoran Gallery of Art here in Washington, D.C.
NPR's Claire O'Neill reports on what makes Eggleston's work so important.
CLAIRE O'NEILL: Remember that scene in "The Wizard of Oz"?
(Soundbite of film, "The Wizard of Oz")
Ms. JUDY GARLAND (Actress): (As Dorothy) Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore.
O'NEILL: That's probably how the crowd felt at New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1976. That year, William Eggleston got his first major solo show. It was the first time the museum had devoted a show to color photography, and for the most part, it was hated.
Mr. PHILIP GEFTER (Writer, The New York Times): It was widely regarded as the worst show of the year.
O'NEILL: Philip Gefter writes about photography for The New York Times.
Mr. GEFTER: Black and white is what dominated the world of fine art photography. Color had really been the precinct of commercial photography, the glossy magazines and advertising, and it was really kind of shocking at the time to see color being used in photographic art-making.
O'NEILL: One critic called it perfectly banal, perfectly boring.
Mr. WILLIAM EGGLESTON (Photographer): I felt sorry for the writer. He obviously didn't understand it.
O'NEILL: One quiet afternoon, Eggleston gave a private tour of his work, 33 years after that first controversial show. Back when everyone else was wearing tie-dye and fringe, Eggleston was wearing suits. He still is, along with the signature green bowtie untied and draped around his neck.
Mr. EGGLESTON: I don't have anything else to wear.
(Soundbite of laughter)
O'NEILL: Hair parted neatly, one hand tucked in his pocket, the perfect southern gentleman.
Mr. EGGLESTON: This is all in Kyoto.
O'NEILL: The tour starts in Japan, which may seem surprising. His photos are often equated with Americana, but these are classic Eggleston, too, colorful fish in a tank, bright bouquet of cellophane and flowers. New York Times writer Philip Gefter says that Eggleston points his camera to what is often called vernacular subject matter.
Mr. GEFTER: One of his most famous pictures, a tricycle in the driveways of a suburban house approached from the perspective of a three-year-old. It all seems so informal and even random. He's saying, look at this. And when you do look at what he points to and the way he's pointing at it, you realize you've never really seen it before. You've never really bothered to look at that.
O'NEILL: Another famous Eggleston photo is a simple snapshot of a hand stirring a cup of soda.
Mr. EGGLESTON: She was an ex-girlfriend I was traveling with, stirring her Coke (unintelligible).
O'NEILL: There's something about the light that makes this ordinary seem magical. Light is what Eggleston has mastered most. Many of his photos are illuminated by that natural five o'clock glow, that and there's an informality to his work that goes back to his early days in Mississippi.
His grandfather gave him his first camera in the late 1940s, and for the most part, he was self-taught. Sometimes he'd watch a friend develop rolls and rolls of the community's family photos.
Mr. EGGLESTON: At a 24-hour, all-night-long photo lab that did snapshots in color, and I found them, to me, very beautiful. They were, let's say, uncomposed, but I liked that. So that snapshot machine was one of my first great influences. That was my teacher.
O'NEILL: We walked past several prints. Some have stories, but many don't. An open freezer contains Tater Tots, beef pie and ice cream. A frail, old woman smokes a cigarette on a rundown patio covered with leaves. Her red and blue geometric dress clashes with the orange and yellow floral couch cushions.
Mr. EGGLESTON: That's in east Tennessee.
O'NEILL: Another photo shows a little boy, about eight years old. It's Eggleston's son, wearing white overalls and an orange shirt. He's poring over a magazine, not Boy's Life, not MAD Magazine, but a catalog of guns.
Mr. EGGLESTON: I had the telephone calls from Esquire magazine. They said, we are doing a piece titled why American men like guns, and I had just taken this particular picture. So I sent this one print to them, and they were horrified. I thought it was ideal as an illustration.
O'NEILL: It's not often that William Eggleston reveals the stories behind his iconic images. He's notoriously reticent. Ask him anything about his photos - what inspired them, what makes them special, why he switched to color - and he'll pretty much say the same thing.
Mr. EGGLESTON: I'm often asked about meaning and I don't have any answer. They don't mean anything. They're just pictures. They either work as photographs, or they don't.
O'NEILL: Has anyone ever told you that you've changed the way they see the world?
Mr. EGGLESTON: Yes. I don't know what they're really meaning to say.
O'NEILL: What they're meaning to say, perhaps, is that before Eggleston's photographs hit the gallery walls, very few people would have found beauty in a ketchup bottle or a green vinyl chair or a pile of trash. Maybe he was just doing the right thing at the right time, but some twinkle in his eye says there's been method to his madness all along.
(Soundbite of film, "The Wizard of Oz")
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. GARLAND: (As Dorothy) We must be over the rainbow.
O'NEILL: Claire O'Neill, NPR News, Washington.
BLOCK: You can watch a slide show of William Eggleston's work narrated by the photographer on NPR's photo blog, The Picture Show.