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.