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The wonder of hue

William Eggleston's thoroughly deserved retrospective, Democratic Camera, looks back at the 'unhurried' career of the father of fine-art colour photography

By now it's a commonplace that William Eggleston more or less invented fine-art colour photography. In the early 1970s Eggleston began producing large prints using Eastman Kodak's dye-transfer process, resulting in bold, saturated hues previously seen only on roadside billboards – a shock to sophisticated audiences of the time, but in retrospect, a natural step forward from pop art.

These days, colour photography is an art form like the rest, and Eggleston is a enjoying a well-deserved career retrospective that began at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and recently transferred to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. This provides an opportunity to reassess Eggleston, lately the darling of hip connoisseurs from Harmony Korine to Sofia Coppola, and take the measure of his large and various – but extraordinarily consistent – body of work.

What fascinates about Eggleston's oeuvre is the gap between what we expect pictures of small-town streets, dogs drinking from mud puddles, and the insides of ovens to look like and the startlingly gorgeous results he routinely extracts from such subjects. Resisting fashion-plate glamour on the one hand and journalistic grit on the other, Eggleston brings an ethically neutral, incurably curious aesthetic to everything he sees – the "democratic way of looking around" alluded to by the retrospective's title.

Sometimes his eye for the beauty of the apparently banal has got him into trouble. Take the 1976 Election Eve series, commissioned by the New York Times, but rejected when Eggleston returned from Jimmy Carter's hometown of Plains, Georgia, with no shots of the successful presidential candidate – or, indeed, any human beings at all – but image after image of farmhouses, gas station signs, sprawling live oaks and unassuming churches. These places, Eggleston's images insist, are not about to change, no matter who wins what.

Not to say that there isn't dramatic interest in Eggleston's pictures, though it's often implicit and enigmatic: the old man lounging with a pistol on his bed in Morton, Mississippi, or the naked man scratching his bedraggled head in front of a vandalised wall in Greenwood, Mississippi. Like an ominous sentence plucked at random from a Cormac McCarthy novel, these pictures tease you with a whole southern gothic milieu that the photographer politely refuses to elaborate.

Even when there's nothing apparently mysterious going on, the boldness of the colour in the photographs can be unsettling. Eggleston's reds, in particular, tend to be hyperlurid, giving even mundane settings the look of freshly discovered crime scenes. While Eggleston has disclaimed any desire to bring out the sinister side of American life, violence finds its way into even his most domestic scenarios, such as the shot of his young son Winston dressed in white overalls, poring over a handgun catalogue.

Even though the oldest of these images date from more than half a century ago, the work feels strangely timeless. One wonders how much has changed in Eggleston's America, which seems frozen in an eternal present: nothing looks too modern in the anonymous, predominantly rural and ex-urban areas he favours, but very little looks all that old, either. Over the years there have been developments in technique, subtle though they are: blues and greens begin to take over from reds, and for the first time in recent work he allows diffused light and the play of reflections to compromise the perfect precision of his compositions.

Still, one doesn't exactly get a sense of progression. Eggleston's career has been an unhurried drift through a vast dreamlike region, not a bullet train of significance speeding from coast to coast. Though Democratic Camera is arranged chronologically, it could just as well be reorganised by subject, or even at random, without losing its basic coherence: a testament to the consistency of Eggleston's vision. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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