His family, he says, “didn’t know what to say” about his newfound passion. “I suppose I was brought up to take over the cotton plantation when I grew up, but that was the furthest thing in my mind,” he says, adding that his parents never pressured him. “I thought it was very boring. There’s nothing to do. Sit and watch the cotton grow. It’s an extremely lonesome existence, way out in the country, the nearest neighbor about 15 miles.”
When Eggleston eventually left Ole Miss, he married Rosa Dossett, whom he’d known since childhood. In 1964 they settled—if that’s a word that can be used for someone who has seemed perpetually restless—in Memphis, where Eggleston continued making photographs. Asked when he realized he could take the art form in a wholly new direction, he contemplates and says, “I’ll have to think about it. I’m going to have a quick cigarette. Will you join me outside?” There, sitting on the steps to the small office building that houses his trust, a cigarette dangling from his long, thin, graceful fingers, Eggleston finally answers the question: “Almost instantly.”
Confidence has never been a problem for Eggleston. (His friend of 40 years the artist William Christenberry notes that some people would call him “cocky.”) Just where he found his self-assurance, Eggleston, a man of few words and long pauses, says, “That I don’t know.” But he offers, “I don’t have much respect for the idea of the tormented artist. I can understand the struggling artist, like when Picasso was young, he couldn’t sell a painting for $2. But he didn’t lack any self-confidence.”
Eggleston has trouble pinpointing the exact moment when and why he started toying with color, though he does recall having a friend who worked in a color-processing lab developing snapshots of family vacations, graduations and the like. “I’d go visit for a few hours over there late at night,” he says, “watch the prints come out of the machines, fascinated with them.” He also began making frequent trips to New York, where, with an ease befitting his status as a son of the “planter class,” he gained entry to a circle of other talented young photographers, including Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand and Diane Arbus. On one visit he scored a meeting with John Szarkowski, the well-regarded photography curator at MoMA. Eggleston had packed some of his color work along with the black and white and bravely showed the images to Szarkowski. “He was so enthusiastic about the color because he said nobody’s using it seriously,” Eggleston says. “Probably this one man convinced me I should be doing color.” Szarkowski proposed a show and remained one of Eggleston’s most vocal and influential champions until his death in 2007. Though Eggleston’s debut in the art capital of the world took a drubbing from the critics, he says, “I wasn’t the least bit bothered by them.” And you believe him.