Eggleston's Red Ceiling
“The Red Ceiling,” (1973) as the picture of the light bulb is often called—it has no official title—was one of the very earliest photographs William Eggleston printed using the dye-transfer process. Before he started working with it, the method was associated largely with advertisements, National Geographic, and Technicolor movies. He admired the “overwhelming” vibrancy of certain cigarette ads and Hitchcock films, and saw no reason why he couldn’t incorporate that same textured color into his own work. In this, he was in the radical minority. Walker Evans had dismissed color photography as “vulgar.” Paul Strand had argued that “higher emotions couldn’t be expressed in color,” and even Robert Frank had agreed, reasoning that “black and white are the colors of photography.” Museums largely reflected this bias.
But when Eggleston first printed “The Red Ceiling,” he saw that the result was remarkable—stranger and richer even than the color negative and Kodachrome film he’d been using since the mid-sixties. He immediately sent it to John Szarkowski, the legendary photography director at the Museum of Modern Art, who recognized its unusual genius. In the coming skirmishes over the legitimacy of color photography, the image would take on a great symbolic significance. This minor, inexplicable moment—in which a photographer had pondered a light bulb in the Mississippi Delta—would come to be understood as a shot across the bow of art-world atrophy.
Now that Eggleston and the partisans of color have long since won that war, it’s worth wondering whether Evans, at least, might have been onto something. There is something vulgar about “The Red Ceiling.” Not only the black-light poster visible in the lower right-hand corner, a chart of sexual positions corresponding to the signs of the zodiac (a poster Walmart still sells for $11), but the photograph’s all-around decadence, its stylized obscurity. It feels unclean.
From “Perfectly Boring” by Will Stephenson for Oxford American; Photo “Untitled (Greenwood, Mississippi, 1973)” by William Eggleston © Eggleston Artistic Trust, courtesy of David Zwirner
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