William Eggleston

Once vilified for his color images of humdrum daily life, the enigmatic man who turned art photography on its ear is getting his due.

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William  Eggleston
William Eggleston in Memphis. CLICK HERE to view a video from the Eggleston opening at the Whitney Museum.

William Eggleston

Once vilified for his color images of humdrum daily life, the enigmatic man who turned art photography on its ear is getting his due.

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.”

william eggleston

Untitled, 1970, dye transfer print.

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.”

william eggleston

Eggleston in Memphis.

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.

He is, after all, a man who has always lived outside of society’s rules—“kind of a blessed rascal” is how Ruscha puts it. He’s been an atheist since the age of five or six (“Not agnostic,” he emphasizes. “Atheist”), has never voted in his life and didn’t pay taxes for years. (The IRS, he says, “couldn’t have been nicer” about that little oversight and happily accepted his plan to write the government a check and put his art in trust.) Weski fondly remembers his first visit to Eggleston in Memphis in 1991: Eggleston woke up at noon, led him on nightly tours of the city’s best music joints—he loves virtually every kind of music except jazz, which he loathes—and turned in at 4 or 5 a.m. “He’s realized over time that he’s not like everybody else,” Weski says, “but it’s very normal to him.” Needless to say, alcohol was part of the adventure. Bourbon, specifically. “I don’t like wine,” Eggleston says. “The Mississippi Delta is not wine-drinking country.