American photographer William Eggleston on how Quaaludes and bourbon informed his extraordinary vision
It happens to be silent-movie day on William Eggleston's preferred TV channel when I arrive at his apartment in midtown Memphis.
Earlier, he tells me, he'd been watching one about Napoleon, though the face on screen now belongs to Gloria Swanson, her vast eyes flittering and blinking, in a thousand tiny adjustments.
To the score of tiptoeing oboes and yearning strings, smoke from Eggleston's American Spirit cigarettes, most burnt black to the filter, rolls sluggishly towards the open window. Five floors below, the virgin forest and glittering greensward of Overton Park unspool into the afternoon sun.
Eggleston - the scion of cotton-growing aristocracy in the Mississippi Delta, the legendary artist who is considered the father of serious colour photography - will be 80 in July.
He is thin but not weedy, and tall. Later, I ask how tall, apropos of chat concerning his dislike (putting it mildly) of 'blue jeans' (his term; accent on the blue) - a garment he is, he says derisively, "several notches above wearing". He would look ridiculous, he insists. "Not that I don't now."
Ridiculous is not a word you would ever use to describe this eyeful of a man, or his attire. Eccentric, perhaps, if you take into account the silver-top walking cane ("it doesn't have a dagger inside," he says, apologetically), and a pair of gold opera glasses on the sofa beside him. "For watching television," he says, noticing me looking at them, though I think he is joking.
In person, he is genteel and precise, if sometimes ill at ease, apt to pull down an iron curtain of silence when the mood takes him. His shirt is crisp and ferociously white; his shoes are polished and show not a crease or a scuff.
His suit trousers (formerly Savile Row, though these days more likely to be by his friend Stella McCartney) are cut to perfection, cloaking a pair of long, elegant legs. He wears his pink polka-dotted navy silk bow tie undone, as is his custom.
Over the years, Eggleston has been likened to the rakish Rhett Butler from Gone with the Wind (released the year he was born, in 1939) and Basil Rathbone (the same tight jaw and piercing eyes).
There's a dash of Gregory Peck, too, particularly in the eyebrows, which, once Eggleston is a bourbon down, begin to leap around his forehead in the manner of air quotes. "If I was as dramatic-looking as Bill Eggleston," his friend the pop artist Ed Ruscha once remarked, "I'd probably do nothing but photograph myself."
We have met, ostensibly at least, to talk about some of his early photographs, which are about to be exhibited at David Zwirner in London, the dealer to whom he defected from Gagosian three years ago.
The pictures, from a series titled Two and One Quarter, have been culled from many thousands he made between 1966 and 1971 with a Hasselblad camera (he usually favours a Leica, though owns practically every film camera ever made).
They range all over the US, but were chiefly taken in and around Memphis and the Delta, where, bar a stint in New York's Chelsea Hotel in the 1970s and trips to Europe and the Far East, he has lived most of his life.
Eggleston and I look through the proof prints together. "Let me tell you a story I think you'd like," he says, remembering the dancer Marcia Hare, whose breeze-blown hair and heavy-lidded eyes gaze up at us from the table.
She's the one he later photographed stretched out on the grass in a flower-sprigged dress, like some exquisite Pre-Raphaelite corpse. Hare was on Quaaludes at the time, a fashionable sedative that Eggleston and his friends were devoted users of in the 1970s. If you've seen Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street, it's the drug that renders Leonardo DiCaprio unable to speak or walk.