William Eggleston

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William Eggleston Portraits at NGV: face to face with the man who shot Memphis

Untitled, 1965-1968 (detail) © Eggleston Artistic Trust

As the cab takes me along Central Avenue, past neoclassical mansions and ranch houses, my mind's shutter clicks, framing Memphis in rectangles of three by two: an empty swing, iron railings choked with hydrangea, the branches of sugar maple trees casting shadows on the off-white boards of a porch. Spend enough time with William Eggleston's photographs and you begin to see like him, or at least to kid yourself that you can, and that perfectly composed images can be fished from the stream of light like bream from a jetty.

At 77, Eggleston is recognised as one of the world's most influential photographers. Film directors David Lynch, Gus Van Sant, Sofia Coppola and the Coen brothers have all been inspired by his oversaturated, quotidian aesthetic, and every photographer who seeks art and drama and beauty in overlooked details of the everyday owes him a debt, be they Martin Parr, Nan Goldin or your best friend's sister on Instagram.

As novelist Eudora Welty put it in the preface to a collection of Eggleston's 1980s work, The Democratic Forest, his best shots "succeed in showing us the grain of the present, like the cross-section of a tree. The photographs have cut it straight through the centre." Five years ago, a print of a child's tricycle, once dismissed by critics as a snap, sold for more than half a million dollars at Christie's.

By reputation, Eggleston is an eccentric Southern gentleman of the first order, fond of whisky, women and guns, and willing to tolerate journalists as long as he doesn't have to actually tell them anything. His son Winston, who runs the Eggleston Artistic Trust, tends to chaperone his father's interviews, but on my way over he calls to say that today it will be just me and the old man.

Eggleston greets me at the door of his apartment, dressed in black patent leather shoes, knee socks, navy blue suit trousers, a pink shirt and an outrageously wide neckerchief with diagonal stripes, folded over itself like a half-unravelled bow tie. His grey hair is combed and parted on the left. In his long, pickpocket's fingers, he holds a lit cigarette, the first of many American Spirits he will smoke over the five hours we spend together.

He welcomes me in and invites me to have a look around. A portrait of his hero, J.S. Bach, hangs over a bulging hardwood desk with clawed feet that he says was looted from the Palace of Versailles during the French Revolution. On a table in the next room, there are five oscilloscopes: a sixth is in pieces on the coffee table in front of him, alongside an open instruction manual, his spectacles, and the Leica camera with the custom-mounted f0.95 Canon lens that he still uses practically every day.

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William Eggleston, the Pioneer of Color Photography

Portrait by Wolfgang Tillmans

I arrive at the Eggleston Artistic Trust building at just after 1 on a sweltering, humid Memphis afternoon. I am met at the door by the charismatic son of the photographer William Eggleston, Winston, who is the director of the trust as well as its official archivist. He ushers me into the cool, darkened rear office where his father sits at one of two substantial desks that are positioned face to face, occupying the center of the room. Large photographic proof sheets hang on the walls along with old Coke signs. An illuminated jukebox sits in the corner beside a red midcentury sofa.

At 77, Eggleston is mischievous, beguiling, puzzling and fascinating, all in nearly equal measure. He has been called a legend and an icon. He is frequently referred to as "the godfather of color photography," even though the sensational 1976 solo exhibit at New York's Museum of Modern Art that established him as such was widely panned at the time. "Critics and so forth obviously weren't really looking at this stuff," he says today. "Didn't bother me a bit. I laughed at 'em."

Eggleston is impeccably dressed in what he wears every day: a dark suit that he tells me was made for him on Savile Row, highly polished black shoes, a white shirt and an untied bow tie around the neck. He smells like bourbon and body lotion. He wears a Cartier watch, two minutes slow. I ask if he likes to talk about photography. Eggleston closes his eyes. "It's tricky," he says. "Words and pictures don't—they're like two different animals. They don't particularly like each other." He speaks in almost a whisper, his dapper Southern drawl relaxed further with a slur.

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An Afternoon With William Eggleston, Living Icon

William Eggleston might be one of the only Americans to call 2016 a great year. That's in large part because he doesn't vote, a decision the legendary photographer made decades ago. "The last person I would have [voted for] was JFK," he quipped in his signature Southern drawl in a suite at the Bowery Hotel in New York last week. "But between then and now I didn't care for the candidates."

"This year, everything's coming together," he said in almost the same breath, about the happy synchronicity of his being honored at the Aperture Foundation's annual fall benefit, his new exhibition at David Zwirner gallery and re-edition of The Democratic Forest from David Zwirner Books—all this week—and, finally, his good friend Bob Dylan winning the Nobel prize. When I noted that no one has been able to reach Dylan about the prize, Eggleston only said, "That's typical." They, of course, haven't spoken about it, either. "I wish he'd call up," he added.

Eggleston, however, isn't one to miss a party. He was in New York from Memphis for a week of dinners, book signings, and events: Monday was Aperture's benefit dedicated to his pioneering use of color in photography; tomorrow is the opening of his Zwirner exhibition. At 77, he's still precise about his words and his time. He qualifies nearly all of his answers to questions with some variation of: "From what I know…," "I suppose," "I guess," "Probably," "Practically," "Maybe," or "I don't think so." And if he agrees or disagrees, he just might say nothing at all. You could mix a drink during one of his pauses.

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