33 photographs from the 1978 Jamaica Botanical Series
Collection of The Grace Museum, Gift of Eddie Green
This exhibition of the Jamaica Botanical Series provides the opportunity to view rarely exhibited early work from 1978 by William Eggleston, one of the celebrated pioneers of color photography. William Eggleston rose to prominence in 1976 with his solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.
In 1964, Eggleston began to work with color film, experimenting with unusual perspectives and angles. He was ahead of his time -- today, we take the limitless possibilities of color photography for granted, but this wasn't always the case. It's important to understand how color photography was thought of in the early 1960s. It was a hobby, the domain of vacation Polaroid images and snapshots. Serious photographers did not use color film. The art world only recognized black and white photography as art.
In early 1970s, Eggleston began printing his images using a dye-transfer process. This kind of print involved three separate negatives for the primary colors of cyan, magenta and yellow. Each negative had to be prepared carefully and the print was created by aligning all three on a single sheet of high quality paper before printing. Dye transfer printing was expensive because it was time consuming and had to be done by hand. But it produced vivid, saturated colors (as bright as they can be relative to tone and hue) unlike anything in normal color photography.
In the Jamaica Botanical Series, rather than photographing nature as a whole, Eggleston creates individual plant portraits. The focus is the plants themselves, their coloration, and the interplay between light, space and form. From the abundant flora of Jamaica, a wide range of plants are represented among these 20 chromogenic dye coupler prints. Fragile pink orchids, vibrant bougainvillea, tropical hibiscus, variegated crotons and delicate ferns flourish. The rich array of colors and textures found within the diverse vegetation of Jamaica provides dynamic subject matter.
Eggleston’s compositions are deceptive. Superficially they convey an accidental, serendipitous quality, the trait of the informal snap-shot, where the subject matter assumes the central focus. However, Eggleston uses the snap-shot style in a deliberate manner to convey more than a purely documentary image. Eggleston’s work is not so much about the object, but the environment and the interrelationship of elements. By cropping and linking elements within the frame, the photographs suggest the continuing relationship of these elements outside the pictorial space.
Eggleston's Jamaica Botanical Series is about the process of photography and the nature of the medium, but these images are also grounded in the theory of painting with regard to color and composition. The cohesion Eggleston achieves between color, form and structure has much in common with the principles of painting. The colors, which at times are intense, are always naturalistic and convey the atmosphere of the location. William Eggleston’s interest in the environment is the incidental and the commonplace, his intent – "to capture the normal moment. Eggleston's color is always naturalistic. If the color print seems lurid, that's the way the subject was found. Calm, subtle, uncolorful subjects are photographed in just this way. Nonetheless, the subjects would appear very different if they were presented in black and white. Eggleston has created bodies of work in black and white photography and videotape. With each shift in medium, the kinds of compositions and nature of the images somehow changes to fit his vision.
Eggleston, still active in film and photography, currently lives in Memphis, Tennessee, on the northern edge of the Mississippi delta. American screenwriter, director, producer, Sofia Coppola who worked with Eggleston noted, “It was the beauty of banal details that was inspirational.”
This series of early Eggleston color prints was gifted to the former Abilene Fine Arts Museum in 1982 by Eddie Green and this is the first time the photographs have been exhibited. The Grace Museum is very fortunate to have this important series of early color photography in The Grace Museum permanent art collection that now houses an important collection of more than 800 fine art photographs.