In 1976, John Szarkowski wrote in the introduction to William Eggleston’s Guide: “I once heard William Eggleston say that the nominal subjects of his pictures were no more than a pretext for the making of color photographs … I did not believe him, although I can believe that it might be an advantage to him to think so, or to pretend to think so.” Traveling through Steidl’s recently released Before Color, we can see why one of Eggleston’s earliest champions saw something deeper in his black & white work. We pass by the broken woodlands of northern Mississippi and suburbs of Memphis, wide gray skies, vacant motels and half-empty diners, peacefully desiccating homes and the beginnings of asphalt jungles. While these are motifs that would come to shape Eggleston’s canonical color work, there is something enchanting about experiencing the master’s work with the color stripped away.
Steidl has put out some of the most significant books on photography, and Before Color is yet another testament to the press’ sophistication. The magnitude of the work covered is impressive, yet the book still manages to move at a nice pace. The page and a half bleeds coupled with the smaller side-by-side images create interesting relationships between the photographs. Steidl’s clever sequencing of the work facilitates our understanding of the larger project: namely, to uncover an artist’s developing visual vocabulary. And as always, the work is beautifully printed. All the plates in Before Color have been scanned from vintage prints developed by Eggleston in his own darkroom. The fact that these prints were made by the photographer himself adds another thrill to looking at the work. Before Color allows us to witness an emergence of a young photographer who would go on to define a generation, and offers us a second look at a world we thought we knew. -PIP