William Eggleston Needs Money
William Eggleston has decided to make his tiny photographs big, but only for an upcoming auction at Christie’s. In the late 1960s, Eggleston began making small-format color photographs. These photos are small – taken by small cameras and printed out small – because that’s all the technology of early photography allowed. Even with Eggleston’s esteemed position as one of just a few photographers who has ever had a major retrospective at the Whitney, he’s still subject to one unflappable force of the art market: small art doesn’t sell for as much as large art.
That’s why he’s blowing up some of his most well-known photographs to a scale that would’ve been unfathomable in the early 1970s. The New York Times, in discussion of Untitled (Peaches), 1973:
The works will now be 3 ft. x 5 ft. This isn’t huge by today’s standards, or even those of the late 1970s: Eggleston’s “new” works won’t embrace a monumentality akin to Jeff Wall. Eggleston can do whatever he wants with his photographs. The issue is location. Eggleston can’t feign that he “did it as an experiment to see what they would look like,” when the backer and the only site for exhibition will be Christie’s.
Eggleston’s decision to revise his photographs is due to the sorry fact that artworks are still valued in accordance to size. It’s a throwback to the days when connoisseurship was still something all budding art world types needed to learn. It has nothing to with quality or that lodestone of economics – scarcity.
Most artists with a capital A – and their galleries – know how to work the market by having a hybrid of works for exhibition at multiple price points. They are acutely aware that quality alone doesn’t determine an artwork’s value. For someone like Eggleston, who, in the 1960s, was wandering the streets in search of good shots, decisions about scale and alternate presentation weren’t issues he had in mind. Eggleston seems to have come to the game late, realizing that his works, if made just a few feet larger, will fetch just a little more. Things have changed, but it doesn’t make me feel any better about a world where, simply, small things aren’t as valuable as big things.