On Sunday, July 27, William Eggleston turned 69. On Monday he is AWOL. At about 1:30 in the afternoon, I receive a call from his son Winston, an exceedingly courteous, soft-spoken man in his mid-30s who handles his father’s affairs. I am scheduled to fly down to Memphis, Tennessee, the following morning to interview Eggleston, but, as Winston warned me a few weeks prior, “his lifestyle doesn’t always adhere” to mundane things like appointments. It seems Eggleston has taken off, as he is wont to do, without leaving word of his whereabouts—and without his cell phone. This time his escape proves brief. Three hours later Winston phones again. He is short on details but says his dad has called, and he is heading over to pick him up. (Eggleston no longer drives.)
Like a horse that keeps bucking its rider and making a run for it, only to turn up grazing happily on a nearby pasture, Eggleston has never been broken. In both his spirited artistic life and his unconventional personal one, he has led a singular existence. So authentically eccentric is Eggleston—no poseur, he—that it doesn’t actually occur to him that he is extraordinary.
The next day the mercury hits 100º in Memphis.
When Eggleston arrives, on schedule and escorted by Winston, for our interview at the Eggleston Artistic Trust, he appears every bit the Southern gentleman in dark pants, a white button-down shirt and a black tie, one flap rakishly tossed back over his shoulder. His silvery hair is slicked and neatly combed, his fingernails yellow from chain-smoking. He is thin to the point of seeming frail, and his face, hard and angular, looks like it was hacked from a block of granite. When he walks, his body lists to one side like a sailboat heeling. When he sits, he is all languid limbs. (“If I was as dramatic-looking as Bill Eggleston,” his friend the painter Ed Ruscha remarks, “I’d probably do nothing but photograph myself.”) Eggleston had surgery about five days ago to replace his left lens, and a pair of heavy black sunglasses shields his eyes. Taking them off, he starts tugging at the skin around his left eye, revealing all the gory red stuff surrounding the eyeball. “It just feels strange,” he says in a low, superslow drawl, blinking in the light. “Does it look bad today? It was all bloodshot at dawn when I woke up.”
The thought of Bill Eggleston with his sight potentially impaired is enough to make photography lovers sweat as if they too were in Memphis today. Then again, Eggleston’s vision has always been off-kilter, at least metaphorically. It’s one of the things that has made him a giant of contemporary photography, as well as the subject of a career retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, opening November 7. It will be Eggleston’s first solo museum show in New York since his inauspicious debut in 1976, at the Museum of Modern Art. Now part of photography lore for producing William Eggleston’s Guide—a catalog of 48 of his idiosyncratic images that has since become a blueprint for aspiring photographers and a collector’s item—the show was a critical bomb. Critics didn’t just dislike it; they were outraged. Much the way viewers were aghast when Manet exhibited Olympia, a portrait of a prostitute, many in the art community couldn’t figure out why Eggleston was shooting in color—then relegated to vulgar pursuits like advertising and family snapshots—and why he was shooting what he was shooting: a child’s tricycle, seen from the pavement? A woman sitting ladylike on a tall street curb? A gas station? In the decades since, the popularity of color photography has exploded and the Eggleston naysayers have all but disappeared. “I think everyone who is doing color photography is somehow influenced by Bill,” says Thomas Weski, cocurator of the Whitney show, who happened upon the Guide in a Munich, Germany, bookstore in the late Seventies. “I found that the images were very familiar and strange at the same time. It’s a good book because it doesn’t give me answers; it’s raising questions.”