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:

In a rare departure Mr. Eggleston, 72, has blown up this image, along with 35 others, from their original 16-by-20-inch sheets to a new, oversize 44-by-60-inch format.

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.

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Comments
4 Responses to “William Eggleston Needs Money”
  1. Biobebop says:

    Hasn’t the line about Eggleston always been that he inherited a great deal of money from his family’s Mississippi (?) plantation or something, and then he traveled around taking color photographs at a time when even B+W were hardly considered art because he was a bit of a insouciant dandy/bastard?
    You’re certainly right that this is motivated by money, but just going on what I understand about his character, it seems just as much that Eggleston saw the ridiculous price realized by Gursky’s (boring) Rhein II and said, “Fuck it. I can beat that bullshit”.

  2. Barbara says:

    I get your point of course, but I do think there’s something great about these images blown up larger. Their clarity becomes even more pronounced and profound. If Eggleston had a choice back then, perhaps he would have enlarged these in the first place. I know I should be more cynical, but the decision (whether intended for financial gain or not) isn’t that offensive to me.

    • Brian Appel says:

      I saw the show at Christie’s and was mesmerized. I saw things in these larger images that I hadn’t seen in the more modest ‘original’ prints. The colors popped and the compositions were strikingly more impressive that the ones on 16 by 20″. If people like the intimacy and saturation of the original-scaled prints they are out there in the secondary market. These bigger images are in an edition of only two and from my perspective don’t diminish the aesthetic impact of the ‘originals’ which have their own impressive aesthetic. No doubt these bigger images will attract a more “Post-War/Contemporary Art collector… the traditional photographic collector will just have to “share” the Eggleston work with a larger more well-heeled collector. An ‘original’ Eggleston “Untitled (Peaches)” was sold at Christie’s on April 5th realizing $242,500. That price point suggests the bigger images did nothing to diminish the more modest scaled ‘originals’.

      Brian

      • Hi Brian,

        Thanks for your response. I wrote this prior to the auctions – and Eggleston’s ensuing legal debacle. Felix Salmon’s already said a lot about the latter, so I think we both know how silly the legal basis is for the suit. Really, as you mention, the Christie’s sale is going to do nothing but raise the prices of any Eggleston work.

        Corinna

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