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?

  • 2
    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, 2012 at 22:08
  • 1
    I dont like it. And I can say why: the background has an imbalanced amount of clutter. (the buildings) and he didnt blur it with narrow DOF. Nov 21, 2014 at 16:19

8 Answers 8


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?


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.

  • 1
    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. Mar 10, 2012 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, 2012 at 22:21
  • Wow, I just got all sentimental about my childhood again.
    – Joanne C
    Mar 10, 2012 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, 2012 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, 2012 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 (probably 20 or 24 mm).

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.

  • Very insightful critique without being unnecessarily offensive. Nov 15, 2014 at 8:45

As a "fine" artist who loves photographs and most other forms of "art", I want to move my viewers and be moved by the work of other artists. This tricycle is so out there, you can't miss it. I like it because it is right in my face. It's humorous. It is important. The composition doesn't bother me. I think the picture needs that little piece of car bumper on the right border. I really like the bold colors of the trike. The piece isn't especially pretty, but its' graphic quality appeals to me. It is a strong piece as far as I'm concerned.

Images are important to us and always serve a purpose. Seeing something like this makes me ask, "Why would anyone do this? "Why not?" seems more to the point, here, because this discussion revolves around whether the term "fine art" (which is an arbitrary definition of one type of art) is applicable to this piece. "Fine" doesn't necessarily mean "good" or "best". There is plenty of "utilitarian" art that is better than quite a lot of fine art. The boundaries between different art-forms often become blurred. Is this important to an artist?

The word, "art", implies skill, whether technical or intuitive. As an artist, I take issue with the idea that "modern art" does not require training or expertise. Good fine art reqiures technique, practice and ability. Inspiration helps. Art is 10% inspiration and 90% hard work for most of us. Good "utilitarian" art requires the same qualities. Great art is "timeless". What does that mean? It moves us greatly and makes us think. We could argue and elaborate on "being moved" and what that means for an eternity.


I suspect you get out of his work what you get out of it. There are no messages, no storylines, no particular agenda. If you think it's worth your time, you look beyond the subject matter at such things as form, framing, angle of view and color. If you must have a subject, it's probably color. For what it's worth, he was influenced by Klee and Kandinsky.

A story about Jackson Pollock: His wife, Lee, was questioning one of his paintings - she goes on about how it isn't cubism and what's the meaning of that line and so on. Finally Pollock says: "I'm just painting, Lee."

That may be how Eggleston shoots - he just takes photographs without much concern about the why behind them. So, ignore the subject and look at color, shapes, and lines to see how they fit together. (I put these notes together over time from newspaper and magazine reviews when I was trying to understand his photographs. I now find some of his work beautiful.)


It's haunting. Who owned loved rode this tricycle ? What came before ? What has been left behind ?

  • I don't think you are coming with something new here. This has already been expressed in the other answer.
    – Olivier
    Jun 20, 2016 at 17:23

One good thing, definitely: Use of limited ranges of colour throughout the image, and connection/grouping of various subject matter by colour. There is black-ish, beige-greenish-yellow, garish-orange-ish, and not much else in anything that isn't sky (which acts as negative space here, and only connects in one point - the chrome plated car bumper at the very edge, interrupting the framing just slightly and probably extending the negative space mentally).


As art it works, not because of its intrinsic brilliance, but because of whatever the viewer brings to its interpretation.

As a photograph it is moderately interesting and moderately accomplished technically, but it is not $580,000 interesting and/or accomplished.

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