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Monochrome man: William Eggleston

As these rediscovered prints reveal, the man who made colour photography into an artform worked brilliantly in monochrome – and his eye for unsettling detail is every bit as sharp

Eggleston in black-and-white? It seems a contradiction in terms. But here, finally, is the evidence that even the most famous colour photographer of all once saw the world around him in monochrome. It is quite a surprise.

A new book, published by Steidl, is called simply Before Colour. It's a great title: specific to the arc of William Eggleston's development, but suggestive of the wider impact that his first colour images had on photography in general. We now often divide the history of photography into before and after colour – a shift of consciousness that is often put down to Eggleston's ground-breaking show at MoMA in 1976, which shocked critics with its dramatic, heavily saturated dye-transfer prints. In fact this wasn't the first time that colour photography had appeared in a major American gallery: photographer Stephen Shore exhibited colour images of America at the Metropolitan Museum of Art four years earlier, and also caused something of a critical storm.

Eggleston's exhibition is now regarded as the moment that colour photography became an art form in itself. Ever since, he has been regarded as the most dramatic colourist in American photography.

Hence the surprise of these prints, which were found a few years ago in the offices of the William Eggleston Artistic Trust in Memphis, in a box containing his earliest photography. They form a kind of Egglestonian photographic prehistory. More intriguingly, they also show the beginnings of a style. In the late 1950s, Eggleston wandered around the suburbs of Memphis shooting whatever caught his eye on high-speed 35mm black-and-white film: people, usually unaware or only just aware of the camera's gaze; and places, including supermarket interiors and exteriors, roadsides, barbecue shacks, shop windows, garages, diners, hotel rooms, crossroads, bushes, trees and fences.

The images here are the first examples of Eggleston's now-famous democratic gaze: everything, even the most banal-seeming subject, is given equal importance in the unfolding visual narrative. This might seem a scattergun approach, but in his short introduction to the book, the southern writer and cultural critic Dave Hickey sees in them echoes of early photographs of the British Raj. There is a "dissonance" in Eggleston's photographs, Hickey notes, suggesting the tension of the moment that America, with all its "mass-produced banality", began to colonise the old south.

This is an interesting analysis. It sheds new light, too, on the so-called "snapshot aesthetic" that the likes of Eggleston, Shore and before them Robert Frank deployed. Hickey argues that, in Eggleston's work, there is "no other honest option" but "to make 'bad' pictures of bad places". (The quotation marks that frame the word "bad" are of the utmost importance.) Eggleston, Hickey writes, "abandons composition for a world with no composure. The truth of formal arrangement, contrast and atmosphere would be a lie imposed on these settings. It would deaden the acidic essence of the subject matter."

There is a great deal of truth here, but I'm not sure it's the whole story. In fact, you can see composition, contrast and atmosphere aplenty in Before Colour. Many of the early photographs here recall Walker Evans's vernacular gaze or Robert Frank's bleakly poetic vision of the other – sadder, poorer, stranger – America. The very first image in the book – a herd of mules and their drivers on a dusty road at twilight – is a shock, so painterly and old-fashioned does it look. Look harder, though, and you see a very Egglestonian sense of dark surprise: the leading rider, head bent, is a black man dressed in what looks like striped prison garb. The tone of the photograph shifts into more ominous psychological terrain, the whole dark history of the south hoving into view behind a single telling detail.

More than once, Eggleston turns his eye on lone figures, often daydreaming women in empty, ornate diners. In one deftly composed image, a stylish woman taps her cigarette into an ashtray. It is an image of considerable formal and atmospheric beauty, and one that possesses the kind of romantic, Edward Hopperesque undertow not often associated with Eggleston's work.

In another almost perfectly formed image, Eggleston freeze-frames a sleek American car swishing though the teeming southern rain, catching it brilliantly, and ironically, between two striped roadside sun umbrellas. There's a hint here of what is still to come: you can sense how different this image would be had he shot it in colour; but perhaps also that it would be less atmospheric too. The same thought occurs while looking at his many supermarket interiors, the cartons of milk and juice arranged in Egglestonian rows, but bled dry by the mysterious power of monochrome.

Part of the power of these photographs rests in the fact that we know what is coming, and where it will take photography. Yet even though it's hard not to return to the question of what these images would look like if only they'd been shot in colour – let alone Egglestonian colour – this is an important work both for students of photographic history and in its own right. Before Colour tells us what we already know: that the greats do not suddenly become great, but work hard to establish a style and signature. But it also shows something more – the great iconoclast, honing his democratic vision before he found the perfect medium for it. The future is just around the corner, but it will take some time before the world catches up with William Eggleston's brilliant – in every sense of the word – vision.

Now see this

Flash Projects specialise in what they call "iconic vintage photographs of popular culture from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s". Their current exhibition is a pop-up show called Canned Candies: the Nudes of Jean Clemmer, which runs at 8 Kingly Street, London, WC1 until 18 December. Clemmer was Salvador Dali's close friend and personal photographer. This series of glamorous (semi-)nudes, a collaboration with the fashion designer Paco Rabanne, shows off his more mischievous side. It was first published in Paris in 1969, when things were altogether more swinging. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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