A Rare Glimpse of William Eggleston’s Polaroids

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Polaroids by William Eggleston new book Steidl
© William Eggleston, Courtesy of Steidl

The godfather of colour photography has released a new photo book, shedding light on a little-known facet of his output – his sumptuously sun-drenched Polaroids

William Eggleston is often referred to as the godfather of colour photography, and with good reason: he is largely responsible for raising the status of colour photography to that of an art form, where previously it was relegated to the realm of advertising. Eggleston’s images of the American South, where he was born and raised, have made an enormous impact on visual culture, influencing artists and filmmakers alike in their portrayal of the region and its particular brand of Americana, complete with gas stations, muscle cars, road signs and diners.

Eggleston calls his photography “democratic”, denoting his refusal to promote one subject matter above another. For the 80-year-old photographer, the composition and form of a photograph, as well as the interplay of colours within it, remain of utmost importance. As such, he despises the term “snapshot” in relation to his work. “[My images] are carefully conceived and confected works of fine art,” he told Art Review last year. “They couldn’t be more distant from snapshots. If there’s such a thing as a reverse of a snapshot, that would be my work.”

You would imagine, then, that Eggleston had eschewed instant photography altogether – the “point, shoot, develop” nature of a Polaroid camera rendering it a veritable snapshot purveyor. But Eggleston has in fact worked in the medium, as evidenced in a glorious new photobook by Steidl, titled Polaroid SX-70 (a reference to the specific camera he used, produced between 1972 and 1981). The book is a facsimile of a black leather album of instant pictures, assembled by Eggleston, and containing the only Polaroids he’s ever taken.

These were made during sunlit meanderings around Mississippi, featuring many of the image-maker’s favoured subjects, rendered in gently washed-out tones. The ridged rear of a terracotta-coloured freight train sits alongside rows of poker-straight railway tracks offering a lesson in linear juxtaposition. A half-drunk Coca-Cola bottle stands beside a white pillar, as elegant as any living subject. A pale pink iron bridge, captured from the underside, is surrounded by red-leafed plants and deep green trees in a perfect medley of colour. The images may be instant, but they’re as masterfully considered as the rest of Eggleston’s output – proof, if any was needed, of his innate ability to elevate anything to high art by the mere angling of a lens.

William Eggleston: Polaroid SX-70 is out now, published by Steidl.