The pictures aren’t narrative in the traditional sense, yet, mysteriously evocative, they hint at a story. It’s nearly impossible not to see Eggleston as a character straight out of William Faulkner, though he brushes aside the comparison, noting that he’s from the Mississippi Delta and Faulkner wrote about hill country, a distinction lost on just about everybody else. “You just get the feeling if you throw the whole world at him, that he’ll use every bit of it,” says Ruscha. “And when you see a picture he’s taken, you’re stepping into some kind of jagged world that seems like Eggleston World.”
That world has as its epicenter Memphis, where Eggleston was born in 1939 to an old, landed Southern family and where he has lived his entire adult life. His was a genteel upbringing, divided between his grandfather’s plantation on the Delta, called Mayfair, and his family’s house in the nearby small town of Sumner, where, he says, he was related to almost everyone. (Sumner is notorious in American history for the 1955 Emmett Till murder trial; the 14-year-old was lynched after he reportedly whistled at a white woman.) With his father in the Navy during World War II, Eggleston lived much of the time with his grandparents and grew particularly close to his grandfather, a local judge whose sudden death when Eggleston was 10 devastated him.
In a region where men and boys hunt and fish with near religious fervor, Eggleston, who had asthma, didn’t do much of either. “I hate standing in this ice-cold water,” he says, sipping an Ensure. “Ugly place, no green on any trees. It is miserable. To me.” He kept indoors, contenting himself by playing the piano. But, unlike most artists, he says he doesn’t recall feeling like an outsider. “I never had the feeling that I didn’t fit in,” he says. “But probably I didn’t.”
He went off to college at Vanderbilt University, where he bought a camera and started taking black and white pictures, but after a year transferred to the University of Mississippi in Oxford—Ole Miss to anyone south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Independently wealthy, he showed no interest in actually graduating. He never even bothered taking exams. Asked why he didn’t get kicked out, he says, “Well, the dean mentioned that, several times: ‘Just what the hell are you doing here?’” Eggleston soon also discovered Henri Cartier-Bresson—the street photographer he calls “my initial idol”—and his seminal 1952 volume The Decisive Moment. “That was the first serious book I found, from many awful books,” he says. “I didn’t understand it a bit, and then it sank in, and I realized, my God, this is a great one.”