By Charles Yao
Quick: What do The Silver Jews, Joanna Newsom, Big Star, Primal Scream, and Spoon have in common? Well, each artist has chosen a photo by William Eggleston — the dandyish godfather of colour photography — for some of their album covers. The famous red ceiling on the cover of Radio City? That’s an Eggleston! A Memphis-born photographer and sometime-musician, Eggleston has close ties to pop music, especially from the American South: He played on his friend Alex Chilton’s Big Star album Third/Sister Lovers, shot a portfolio at Graceland, and photographed the set of David Byrne’s True Stories. More recently, he appeared in Cat Power’s laconic and positively Eggleston-esque music video for “Lived in Bars.”
This post contains a few of our favourite music-related Eggleston photos, including a cool snap that Spoon picked for Transference. It features a bored-looking young dude in Sumner, Mississippi, and was taken from Eggleston’s controversial 1976 solo show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Even though a well-known critic called it “perfectly boring,” the exhibition changed art photography — breaking the stranglehold of black and white, and giving a new generation of photographers permission to shoot in colour. For a fun corollary, think of the final third of that movie Pleasantville.
So, what’s the big fuss? What, exactly, is the appeal of these photographs? Director Michael Almereyda put it best, we think, in William Eggleston in the Real World — his sublime documentary with a Roy Orbison reference(!) for a title: “One measure of Eggleston’s gift is that it’s fairly impossible to spend time with his pictures without experiencing a kind of contagious recharged awareness of the richness of the visible world… Everything is worth looking at, the pictures say.”
Above: Cover for Joanna Newsom and the Ys Street Band EP.
Above: Cover for Primal Scream’s Give Out But Don’t Give Up.
Above: From William Eggleston’s portfolio Graceland.
Above: From William Eggleston’s True Stories portfolio.
Books about William Eggleston’s work are not as ubiquitous as you might think, given his influence. And, unless you’ve got, say, $158,000 to drop on a single print, your best bet to see a printed Eggleston photo may be through that classic container of vernacular design and fine art: the humble album cover. We’ve always got a few stocked at June, so come on by and see ‘em for yourself.