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What makes this Eggleston picture great? I'm being a little provocative here, I actually like the picture, but...

Untitled, 1970 (Tricycle photograph by William Eggleston)

It is just a rusty toy; you can find one like it almost everywhere. Ok, the perspective is a bit unusual, but the framing is not flawless: we can see a bit of a car in the right. Besides that, what else do we have here? If I hadn't seen The Shining the picture would be more pointless to me. (Which came first, Eggleston or Kubrick?)

Is it a piece of art just because we know the photographer who made it is an artist? It is quite easy to make a shot that looks alike, while all the real visual art before the 20th century actually required some serious technical skills.

Picture taken from a blog; you can see another online version (with somewhat different color) at Christie's, where it sold for $578,500 in March, 2012.

I choose this photo on purpose. Ok, it is a good photo. We also say it is art — but why? The photo itself may as well be nothing special if we do not know the photographer is an artist or the price it sold for. It is a rather profound question (not mine... just asking what makes art such). Because otherwise, there is nothing to say against the argument that art is just some overpriced stuff hanging in a museum (or called art by someone called a critic by someone else).

Put in the simplest way possible:

People say this is good stuff; why?

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You may be interested in reading John Szarkowski's introduction to William Eggleston's Guide (the book that has this photograph on the cover): egglestontrust.com/guide_intro.html –  coneslayer Mar 10 '12 at 22:08
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This is definitely borderline for the site - what makes it great can definitely be different from person to person. Not to mention, the community downvoted the idea of critiquing famous pieces in meta. I'm not saying it doesn't have value, just that we may not be the best place for it. –  rfusca Mar 11 '12 at 14:38
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Personally, I appreciate this question. Its about the artistic side of photography...something this site desperately needs more of. The nature of art is simply that it IS subjective, and as such is always going to be a "rough fit" for StackExchange. However given that this SE site is about photography, I think we should welcome such questions as this, if only to evoke an excellent answer from Stan Rogers. ;) –  jrista Mar 11 '12 at 16:21
    
@jrista I like Stan's a lot , but I think its going to apply equally well to any question of this nature. The next photograph that somebody says, "This is technically easy but famous, why?" but its a different photograph - the answer is still going to be the same "Because it evokes an emotion, because its art". I'm all for the artistic questions, but this seems pretty run of the mill to me. –  rfusca Mar 11 '12 at 18:41
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I have to agree with rfusca here. There is going to be a lot of "either you 'get it' or you don't" (as with this piece), and a lot that is contextually bound as well (pictorialism and the f/64 Group reaction to it, etc.). I love Adams, but Moonrise, Hernandez doesn't do a thing for me. This is bound to go badly, and has already lead to "I disagree" downvoting (at 20K+, I don't care, but for someone in the hundreds, it'll make a difference to their level of participation). –  user2719 Mar 11 '12 at 20:19

3 Answers 3

up vote 10 down vote accepted

I think the popularity of that image comes from its historical context. Up to then, the most highly regarded photographic work was black and white. Ansel Adams landscapes for example. Eggleston took images of everyday things, and in color. Reminds me of Andy Warhol, whom he seems to have been affiliated with.

He seems to have influenced a lot of other American photographers like Stephen Shore and John Baeder, with their shots of diners, road signs, rusty cars and other ordinary scenes.

This image makes me smile. Maybe the perspective, looking up, not at a mountain, but a tricycle! I don't really think it's about composition. It's possibly thumbing your nose at the art establishment of the time?

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If that's not evocative of a lot of things, you were never a child or a parent in the suburbs of the USA in the '50s or '60s (or, I suppose, the early '70s).

If all you see is a "rusty toy", you're missing an awful lot. It's a racing car, a motorcycle, a space ship, an adventure machine. It's huge and spectacular if you look at it correctly (through the mind of a child); its possibilities completely overwhelm the drab ordinariness of the cookie-cutter "Little Boxes" world in which it actually exists. Those handlebars didn't get to be that way because the tricycle was left out in the rain; those are the scars of experience (probably of a number of children—things were often handed down through families). That trike has been to more places, to more planets, than you can imagine. And that's what it says before you consider loss, whether of a child or of your own childhood.

You're looking at the photograph as a technical execution. Don't. Beyond the basics required for fluent expression, art is not skill; art is content and expression. And yes, sometimes art is of its time—this piece speaks to me colloquially and as a friend in ways it probably cannot speak to you without research and hints.

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I like that picture for all the reasons you mention. I immediately think back to when I was roaming around the neighborhood with a tricycle, along with the other kids my age. However, one thing does bug me. Why does foreground black turn blueish at about the roofline of the houses? Sorry, but I notice that after a short while and it bothers me. Is that maybe a artifact of old fashioned dodging to get the sky not totally washed out? I just can't believe the artisted did that deliberately. If he did, it's one part of this piece I don't like. –  Olin Lathrop Mar 10 '12 at 22:09
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@OlinLathrop — that would be my guess. Dodging and burning in colour, even what you might think of as pretty minor stuff, are a real SOB because you have to account for reciprocity failure (different colours react differently to different exposure times), and the full degree of that isn't visible until after the dry-down is complete. There's almost always going to be some gradation in colour unless you use masks and do hard adjustments. Digital colour is so-o-o much easier. –  user2719 Mar 10 '12 at 22:21
    
Wow, I just got all sentimental about my childhood again. –  John Cavan Mar 10 '12 at 23:22
    
In fact I am not American and I never saw a tricycle like that. Its funny because even if I am a man, I can't swim and I am not a God I still find this interesting sandro_botticelli.historiaweb.net/img/botticelli-venere.jpg I talked ALSO about composition, because once you buy the expensive gears you still need to make good composition to call yourself a good photograpgher, especially when you are shotin to a subject which is pointless by itself, otherwise there is no difference between a random snapshot and art. –  Paolo Mar 11 '12 at 10:30
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As for "I could have done that"—why didn't you? Would you have thought to make the tricycle huge and the neighborhood small? As a painter, I could reproduce many of the "great works" faithfully, even as a child. (I started taking photos to collect references for painting.) But reproduction is not the same as production, it's like transcribing Shakespeare with good penmanship. Again, stop examining the technical. If you're looking for an "art recipe", you've missed the whole point of art. –  user2719 Mar 11 '12 at 19:53

First, as @rfusca more or less suggested in the comments, much of this answer is fairly general, not really about this particular picture. Second, a lot of it represents more or less the extreme of the cynic's viewpoint. I'm not sure it's ever entirely true -- but I am convinced that some elements have a fair amount of validity too.

I will posit that at least 95% of art critics are basically overeducated morons. They studied art enough to know the names of the schools and the prominent (and often at least a few obscure) members of each -- but they've still done a lot more memorization than understanding.

I will also posit that many are (for various reasons) angry at the world (or more willing than most to take out perfectly ordinary levels of anger on the world), and they use "art" as their way of getting even. Art is the ideal medium for this, because it's all a matter of taste. They proclaim a "piece" to be "high art", and anybody with the nerve to point out that the emperor is naked is obviously a cretin.

To maximize the effectiveness of this tactic, however, what they espouse is primarily mediocre to poor. After all, even ordinary people can admire pictures (sculptures, whatever) that are honestly worth looking at. Anybody can see that a sunset is pretty. Only a true connoisseur can recognize the greatness of a dirty-white canvas with a mostly-black square painted on it, and those who don't stare long enough to notice that the upper, right-hand corner had red under the black are obviously too blind for their opinions to matter at all!

Looking more specifically at this picture, it reminds me quite distinctly of the first few dozen pictures I took after I first got a wide-angle lens (24mm on full frame). Exaggerated perspective is fun for a while. If I had to guess, I'd say this was probably taken when the widest angle most people had was a 28mm, and this is enough wider to be noticeable (quite possibly 24mm).

For what it's worth, I think the same general trend continues much more recently -- while I've sold very little stock photography, by far my biggest sellers were ones I took right after I got an 11-18mm lens. I'm pretty sure most of them were simply the first pictures on the market of those particular subjects with that wide of a lens. Quite frankly, I was a bit concerned at the time about submitting those pictures at all -- none of them was (IMO) particularly great either technically or artistically, but they gave a look and viewpoint that was unique at the time, and that was apparently enough.

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