What can I say about William Eggleston’s Guide? It’s just one of those photobooks that everyone knows. You’ve probably got a copy; if not, you’ve seen all the pictures enough times that you don’t need one. Even those lucky people who pay no attention to photography or photobooks have seen a few of the pictures thousands of times. I had it on my ‘to buy’ list for many years, after seeing what must have been a first edition copy in Half Price Books for more money than I wanted to spend at that time.
In 2002, MoMA reprinted the catalog, and it’s remained in publication ever since. (My copy is a 2019 printing of the 2002 edition.) For the second, mass market edition, the Museum of Modern Art re-scanned the negatives and (I suspect) bumped up the color and contrast. I have nothing to compare it to… well.. that’s not true. I have a Thames & Hudson catalog from the 2002 exhibition William Eggleston at the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain…
It’s hardly a fair comparison. The Thames & Hudson book is 20 years old and the paper has yellowed somewhat, and the images are much larger. T&H make no mention of scanning procedures or reproduction methods, and the color in their book is universally cooler, more like fujicolor. The MoMA catalog reprint was acquired new and still in plastic, and the paper remains bright white. From page 2, “… the plates have been made from new digital scans made by Martin Senn directly from William Eggleston’s 35mm transparencies.” Color in the MoMA catalog tens more towards Kodak, to my eye: it’s warmer and has somewhat more contrast. Interestingly, the MoMA book is also from 2002, though, so color differences are merely to taste. Honestly, I don’t really have a preference, and if I hadn’t a/b’d the books, I wouldn’t know any difference, and I expect you didn’t come here to read 500 words about the production quality…
William Eggleston’s Guide originally appeared in 1976, as a catalog accompanying “Photographs by William Eggleston,” the first one-person show of color photography at MoMa. Here in 2022, color photography is omnipresent; a time before color photography is unimaginable. Some months ago, a YouTube commenter asked why someone would print a book with only black & white photographs in it… the book in question was one of Robert Adams’ classics. I think the person genuinely had no idea that color film wasn’t really viable, for most purposes, until the mid-20th century, and even then it was incredibly slow. Kodachrome may have given the nice bright colors in 1973, but it did so at ISO 20 or 64. Additionally, color photography was considered vulgar, the province of advertising, for most of the Art Photography community well into the 1980s (and even later, for some die hards).
John Szarkowski touches on this in his characteristically excellent catalog essay, and I’d love to just quote the whole thing but he goes on for nearly two pages, so I won’t… Szarkowski argues that “… most work in the medium [color] has been puerile. Its failures might be divided into two categories.” The first failure is “black-and-white photographs made with color film, in which the problem of color is solved by inattention.” Color in photographs of this type is
…extraneous—a failure of form. Nevertheless, such pictures are often interesting, even if shapeless and extravagant, in the same way that causal conversation is often interesting.Szarkowski, John. William Eggleston’s Guide. Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2002. p. 8-9.
And the second is, “…beautiful colors in pleasing relationships.”
The nominal subject matter of these pictures is often the walls of old buildings, or the prows of sailboats reflected in rippled water. Such photographs can be recognized by their resemblance to reproductions of Synthetic Cubist or Abstract Expressionist paintings. It is their unhappy fate to remind us of something similar but better.ibid.
I think of my own photographic output and weep.
The best color photography, proper color photography, as practiced by Eliot Porter, Stephen Shore, Helen Levitt, and, of course, Eggleston,
…are not photographs of color, any more than they are photographs of shapes, textures, objects, symbols, or events, but rather photographs of experience, as it has been ordered and clarified within the structures imposed by the camera.
It could be said—it doubtless has been said—that such pictures bear a clear resemblance to the Kodachrome slides of the ubiquitous amateur next door. It seems to me that this is true, in the same sense that the belles-lettres of a time generally relate in the texture, reference, and rhythm of their language to the prevailing educated vernacular of that time. In broad outline, Jane Austen’s sentences are presumably similar to those of her seven siblings. Similarly, it should not be surprising if the best photography of today  is related in iconography and technique to the contemporary standard vernacular camera work, which is in fact often rich and surprising. the difference between the two is a matter of intelligence, imagination, intensity, precision, and coherence.ibid, 10.
Is this why I mostly stopped photographing? Probably. I long ago realized I lacked imagination, intensity, precision, and coherence, and my intelligence is, at best, questionable… But this review isn’t about me. This is a review of an excellent photobook that you should probably have in your collection, if you have any interest at all in color photography. Eggleston was an absolute master of the form and William Eggleston’s Guide was both his coming out party and perhaps his most easily accessible body of work.
Given that William Eggleston’s Guide has remained in production continuously since 2002 (with reprintings in 2005, 2007, 2010, 2011, 2013, 2014, 2016, and 2019, according to my 2019 copy), new and used copies are widely available and cheap. I think I bought mine new direct from MoMA and probably with a coupon, but I don’t really recall. If you have money to burn, MoMA have first edition copies available for a staggering $2,500. I say “staggering,” because private sellers have it on offer for nearly double (at time of writing). I’m not even remotely tempted; even before I mostly lost interest in acquiring more photobooks, even when I was spending hundreds or thousands of dollars per month on photobooks, $2500 would’ve been too rich for my blood. $28 or $45 and a mass market second edition are plenty good enough, I think. It’s a great book, and well worth your time… at no more than $50.