William Eggleston and the Relativity of Red

“Where I got the color red—to be sure, I just don’t know.”Henri Matisse

“In recent years color images have dominated in many fields… In interpreting color in an abstract manner we can literally ‘paint’ with color, creating departures-from-reality in great variety.” —Ansel Adams

The long-on-the-road William Eggleston retrospective has touched down at LACMA. Eggleston is known as the first color photographer to rate a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. At that time (1976), serious photography was black and white, and color was for for prosumers and Mad Men. Eggleston’s Greenwood, Miss. (1973, upper right), called The Red Ceiling, is often compared to Matisse’s The Red Studio (upper left). Besides the color scheme and general claustrophobia, both feature nudes in flat, unnatural colors. For Matisse, the nudes were his own masterpieces-to-be. For  Eggleston, they were posters of novel sexual positions, displayed for handy reference in some Red State swinger’s rumpus room. (Ironically, MoMA’s John Szarkowski said his first encounter with Eggleston was “out of the blue.”)

Art’s inflection points often leverage a new technology in the service of “realism” (in scare quotes, for every formal innovation, including non-objectivity, has been pitched as the New Realism). The LACMA show juxtaposes chromogenic and dye transfer prints of some of the same early images. The chromogenic pictures are pallid, like a TV dinner’s Salisbury steak. The larger dye transfer prints, for which Eggleston became famous, are fantastically lusher, not so different in tone from a Crewdson, or HDTV. Was The Red Ceiling that Eggleston shot that red? “I don’t think anything has the seductivity of the dyes,” Eggleston said. “By the time you get into all those dyes, it doesn’t look at all like the scene, which in some cases is what you want.”

Eggleston’s talking point was that the new technology allowed him to dial up the saturation, and that presumably helped make the case for it being “art.” The art audience bought it—gradually—and even that old curmudgeon Ansel Adams, bless his heart, did. Photographs could be color, Adams conceded, as long as they were “abstract” and departing from “reality.”

But what is reality? That’s one of the questions art asks and never answers. At top are digital photos I pulled off the web, of the Matisse and the Eggleston. Side by side, in .jpg, the Eggleston’s wine-dark red blows the Matisse red out of the water. Before the objects, could they ever be shown together, the advantage would be to Matisse—right? “Red” is partly a technology of reproduction. It makes you wonder whether future artists will be able to show us red in a way we’ve never seen it before; whether the fauve revolution could be an ongoing thing.