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.
The photographer William Eggleston first radicalized the art world 40 years ago with his colorful, dye-transfer prints; the same year he had undertaken a portfolio titled “Election Eve,” a road trip from his home in Memphis, Tennessee, to Jimmy Carter’s hometown of Plains, Georgia. He avoided, to paraphrase his famous quote, the obvious, and veered off the campaign trail, with its barber shops and town halls and babies to be kissed; instead he photographed emptied yards, sides of barns, churches with hand-painted names in crooked lettering, weeds poking through red Georgia clay, a Jimmy Carter for President sticker plastered to the bumper of a brown Chrysler in a rain-puddled parking lot. His pictures did not require human beings. I first saw some of the images that make up “Election Eve” around the time of Bush vs. Gore, and I have not trusted a poll since. The real signs, as they do with much of Eggleston’s work, lie in the landscape.
I went to meet him a week before the presidential election. In a room at the Bowery Hotel he sat in a loveseat and asked, in his low-register, if I would sit by him. His daughter, Andra, who designs textiles based on her father’s drawings, would soon join us. His Leica rested on a coffee table, next to a glass of water and an ashtray. CNN played on the television, but nobody in the room paid any attention to it, least of all Eggleston, who has steadfastly expressed disinterest in politics for as long as he has been giving interviews.
He wore a suit and an ascot tie, half undone, presumably for no particular reason other than the fact that he nearly always wears one. He claims to have never owned a pair of jeans. He was jacket-less, perfectly tailored, shoes shined. It was just the way he was dressed eight years ago in Memphis, when I first met him before his major retrospective at the Whitney Museum, and it was the way he had been dressed the previous evening at an Aperture Foundation gala, “Dear Bill,” at which he was the guest of honor. He had not, I had noticed, stuck around long enough to hear, “Nature Boy,” a song which was sung as a tribute to him. It was perfectly all right, we decided, that he had cut out a little early; after all, he had quite a lot going that week in New York, and for a good while to come. This was the eve, too, of Eggleston’s exhibition, “The Democratic Forest,” at the David Zwirner gallery, which began representing him late last year. The show featured a selection of new photographs from his epic series of some 1,500 photographs made between 1983 and 1986. In the ’80s, Eggleston described the project this way: “Friends would ask what I was doing and I would tell them that I was working on a project with several thousand prints. They would laugh but I would be dead serious. At least I had found a friend in that title, The Democratic Forest, that would look over me.”
Democratic, referring not to the Party, but to an equanimity of subject. If his 1976 Museum of Modern Art debut legitimized color photography as art (much to the initial scorn of the New York art world), the shelter of the title “Democratic Forest” gave him permission to go everywhere, beginning with the cotton fields of his native Mississippi and prowling the back lots and side roads and lost corners of the American South, Pittsburgh, Berlin, and elsewhere. In his hands, the camera becomes a palpable, itinerant presence; the scope feels restless, filmic. Nothing was off limits, and nothing mattered more than anything else. The image of a child’s face—even the face of his own child—carried no more photographic weight than a rusted car door. That car door could be freighted with just as much feeling as one of the luminous large-format portraits: artistically, Eggleston approached and treated them the same. His places and objects are attitudinally akin to a Cézanne still life, and frequently more autobiographically revelatory than his people. Place is central to Eggleston, and no junkyard, no field, no food stand, no porch, no laundry room can be viewed as insignificant.
William Eggleston Portraits at NGV: face to face with the man who shot Memphis
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.
William Eggleston, the Pioneer of Color Photography
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.
I mention that for decades people have studied his compositions, the geometry of his images, which seem to grow more complex the more you look. But this sort of analysis of his work strikes Eggleston as “nonsense.” Photography is second nature to him — intuitive not analytical. “I know they’re there, the angles and compositions,” he says. “Every little minute thing works with every other one there. All of these images are composed. They’re little paintings to me.”
But one wouldn’t call him a fan, exactly, of photography. “Oh, half of what’s out there is worthless,” he scoffs. “The only pictures I like are the ones I’ve taken.” In a way, somebody like Ansel Adams strikes me as the very antithesis of Eggleston, so I ask what he thinks of him. “We didn’t know each other,” he says, “but if we did, I’d tell him the same thing: ‘I hate your work.’ ” I had read, though, that he admired Henri Cartier-Bresson, the French photographer famed for his work capturing “the decisive moment,” who said one thing Eggleston recalls with fondness: “You know, William, color is bullshit.” I ask if the remark dented his confidence. “Oh, no. I just said, ‘Please excuse me,’ and left the table. I went to another table and partied.”
William Eggleston: ‘The music’s here then it’s gone – like a dream’
Darkness is falling outside the window of William Eggleston’s fifth-floor apartment in midtown Memphis, and the silences that punctuate his conversation have grown even longer. After several hours in his company, I am preparing to take to take my leave, when suddenly he decides he is going to play the piano for me. I help him to his feet and he makes his way unsteadily to the magnificent Bösendorfer grand in the corner of his living room. Once seated, he stares for a few long moments at the keyboard, as if lost in thought.
“I play the piano maybe two or three times a day,” he told me earlier, “but only if she wants to be played. I speak to her and she talks back. Mostly, just to say: ‘What’s in there?’ She is almost always responsive.”
This evening, the piano wants to be played. The 78-year-old photographer, who has imbibed several glasses of bourbon-on-ice in the past hour or so, calls up a snatch of a Beethoven piano sonata from memory. It is the starting point for a long extemporisation that unfolds slowly and tentatively at first, becoming more complex and compelling as his concentration becomes total. Time seems to slow down in the room as the reflection of his wristwatch dances on the wall behind him and the light fades on the treetops beyond the window. The mystery that is William Eggleston deepens.
In his eighth decade, the man whom many consider the world’s greatest living photographer has surprised the art world by releasing his debut album on the indie rock label Secretly Canadian. Entitled Musik, it comprises 13 often dramatic improvisations on compositions by Bach (his hero) and Handel as well as his singular takes on a Gilbert and Sullivan tune and the jazz standard On the Street Where You Live. Even more surprising, to those of us who have witnessed his serene piano playing on several occasions over the years, the works are played entirely on a Korg synthesiser (bought in the 1980s and now broken beyond repair), and assume the character of experimental electronic soundscapes.
The original recordings survive on 49 floppy discs that amount to around 60 hours of improvisation. Producer Tom Lunt, a friend of his son, Winston, undertook the mammoth task of editing and remastering the tapes. Eggleston professes to have had “nothing whatsoever” to do with the selection of tracks or the release of the album. The results are by turns challenging and mesmerising. “There’s the same sense of freedom you find in his photography,” Lunt said recently of the album, while Eggleston’s close friend the film director David Lynch has described it as “music of wild joy with freedom and bright, vivid colours”. The great washes of synthetic sound, sometimes seductively symphonic, sometimes ominous, certainly add a new resonance to the photographer’s most famous quotation about being “at war with the obvious”.
Last year I interviewed Eggleston on stage at the National Portrait Gallery in London; he was in a wheelchair following a bad fall. Today, he moves through the apartment with the aid of a silver-topped cane, which accentuates his aristocratic demeanour. He is as stylish as ever in a white dress shirt with a red, paisley-patterned Ascot, untied, falling from the collar, pressed formal trousers and shiny Oxford brogues. For years, he had his suits made to order on Savile Row, but now, he tells me, they are provided by Stella McCartney, whom he refers to, with a twinkle in his eye, as his current favourite “girlfriend”. Another of his “girlfriends”, Alex, an artist who hails from Hot Springs, Arkansas, and whose work is pinned to the wall behind him, arrives towards the end of our meeting to keep him company. “There are quite a few of them out there,” he says, smiling mischievously.
Following the death of his wife, Rosa, in 2015, Eggleston reluctantly vacated the family home for this large apartment in a well-heeled residential “retirement community”. Alongside the piano stands a state-of-the-art hi-fi system and some huge speakers. “One of the advantages of being here is that all the neighbours are deaf. I can play the piano loudly all night if I want to. I often do.”
He remains defiantly intemperate, getting through a pack of Natural American Spirit cigarettes during our conversation and visibly livening up as his “cocktail hour” arrives. It begins at 5pm and ends around 8pm, unless he has polished off his daily alcohol allowance (half a bottle of Jack Daniel’s Black Label) before then, which is often the case. Things can get quite surreal by the second glass. The next day, he will tell me that he has more than half a million negatives, which seems a lot. When I mention it to his son, Winston, he informs me that there are in fact around 55,000.
Given that Eggleston began playing the piano, he says, aged four, I ask him if he regrets not becoming a concert pianist (as his parents briefly hoped he might). “I can say no because I don’t have much of a desire to perform in public,” he responds. “When I play, I’m really playing for myself. If friends are around when that happens, they often say: ‘Oh, Bill, it’s so beautiful. I’d love to hear that again.’ And I say: ‘Well, I didn’t write it down.’ It’s here and it’s gone – like a dream.”
An Afternoon With William Eggleston, Living Icon
"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.