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, 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 perfect compositions can be fished from the stream of light like bream from a jetty.
At seventy-seven years old, 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 that 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 center.” 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, JS 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.
There are books of his photographs, but none of his own work on the walls. The collage over the sofa and the papier mache cactus in the corner are by two of his many girlfriends: Leanna from Baton Rouge and Alexandra from Hot Springs. I ask if most of his friends are women these days and he says that’s true. “I just particularly like pretty girls. I thought that was common knowledge.”
Eggleston is a little deaf in his left ear, but far less reticent to discuss his photographs than I had been led to believe. We leaf through the book of the portraits show that is coming to the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) this month, and two volumes of the eight volume Democratic Forest set. There are many long, amicable pauses, but he answers every question put to him, and blesses observations that he deems acute with a courteous show of agreement. “That’s my thinking exactly.” “That’s well put, I’d say.” “That pretty much says it.”
Eggleston announced himself with a solo show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in 1976 that was panned by uncomprehending critics, including Hilton Kramer of the New York Times, who called it “perfectly banal, perhaps… perfectly boring, certainly.” Before, art photography was, with few exceptions, shot in black and white. Colour was for picture postcards and sunburnt children grinning at the pier.
The bad reviews never bothered him. “It didn’t make any difference to me. They weren’t a bit accustomed to seeing colour pictures, and I think that terminally threw them all, because everything I read was so stupid,” he says.
Beginning in the mid-1960s, when he spent time with fellow photographers Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand, Eggleston has cultivated art world connections, but he is also apt to dismiss almost all photography and criticism as worthless. Photographers send him books all the time saying he’s an influence, but he doesn’t see it.
Does anyone understand his work? “Lee Friedlander did,” he says. Curators John Szarkowski, Walter Hopps and Mark Holborn, Davids Lynch and Byrne. “A lot of film-makers see things, maybe because they photograph motion pictures, they seem to get more out of it than most other people.”
Eggleston was born in Memphis in 1939 and raised between Sumner, Mississippi and a nearby cotton plantation belonging to his grandparents. His father was killed in action during the Second World War and his grandfather died suddenly when he was ten, but he was never short of money or encouragement. He bought his first camera, a Canon Rangefinder, in 1957. Inspired by Henri Cartier-Bresson, in particular The Decisive Moment, he set out to become a photographer.
His trust fund meant he never had to compromise or sell his work to clients. “Having a certain amount of money and freedom go right together” is how he puts it (Juergen Teller calls him “the freest man I’ve ever met”). When he discovered dye-transfer printing in 1973, an expensive process used in advertising that produced intensely vivid colours, he didn’t have to worry about the cost.
He never crops his photographs, never takes more than one shot of the same subject, never shoots after he’s had a drink (he rejects testimony to the contrary from his friend Jim Dickinson as “a fabrication”) and often doesn’t even look through the viewfinder. “I do that” – he raises an imaginary camera, like a rifle rising to a bird – “and it’s taken.”
Eggleston presents his genius as intuitive, indeed almost accidental. He stayed with Warhol ‘Superstar’ Viva at the Hotel Chelsea for years, but never took any good photographs of New York (although he is best known for photographing northern Mississippi, he has published collections of Paris and Kyoto.) “I was too busy doing other things… It didn’t happen.” He didn’t try? “It just didn’t happen,” he reiterates.
The NGV show originated at the National Portrait Gallery in London. As Eggleston by and large stopped taking pictures of people in the mid-1970s, it is necessarily a collection of his earlier work. “I’m just not interested in, nor consider myself a portrait photographer one bit,” he says, his southern accent rendering the last word, bee-at, in two syllables. “Sometimes people just appeared.”
There are some conventional portraits in the show, but the best and most representative shots catch his subjects unawares: a young woman on Quaaludes passed out on the grass, a couple eating McDonald’s in the front seats of their car, a blonde, Brylcreem-ed youth stacking supermarket trolleys in the late afternoon sun and a naked man in a bare room, lit by a single bulb, with graffiti scrawled on the walls.
The two pieces of criticism that Eggleston considers “flawless” are the foreword to the MoMA show, written by Szarkowski – “in these photographs form and content are indistinguishable, which is to say that the pictures mean precisely what they appear to mean. Attempting to translate these appearances into words is surely a fool’s errand” – and Welty’s introduction to the Democratic Forest, which makes perceptive observations about the absences in his work.
“The human being – the perpetrator of or the victim or the abandoner of what we see before us – is the reason why these photographs of place have their power to move and disturb us,” Welty writes. “They always let us know that the human being is the reason they were made.”
Eggleston himself steadfastly refuses to attribute meaning. “These pictures of mine, they’re not supposed to be full of meaning at all. I just like it when they work as photographs,” he says. For this reason, his photographs rarely have titles, and in the Democratic Forest, at least, are presented without dates or locations.
The 1960s and 70s were a golden era for American photojournalism, in particular images of the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War. Did people try to persuade him to photograph marches and sit-ins? “Uh-huh. There was a phase when people were influenced by things like Life Magazine. And by and large they’re not great photographs.”
Where do they fail? “Pretty much everywhere,” he snorts. When Eggleston makes provocative statements like this, he purses his lips, scrunches up his features and gives you a look, inviting you to acknowledge and share in the naughtiness.
At around four o’clock, Terri, a lecturer at Memphis College of Arts, stops by briefly. As far as I can gather, Eggleston’s needs are attended to by a rotating cast of girlfriends, most of them educated southern women in their forties. His wife, Rosa, who died in 2015, had a permissive attitude to his many mistresses, and now that she’s gone he requires more care than ever.
We study his photographs in near silence for a while – a phone off the hook on a rumpled bedspread, the shadow cast by net curtains, abandoned diners and a pick-up truck filled with empty cans – and as we pass through these scenes from an unwritten Raymond Carver story, I wonder when this legendary boozer, who was once literally pulled back from the brink of a cliff by Dennis Hopper, is going to offer me a drink.
A large red sign, bolted to the wall just inside the front door, reads “THE OCCUPANT OF THIS APARTMENT WAS RECENTLY HOSPITALIZED FOR COMPLICATIONS DUE TO ALCOHOL… IF YOU BRING ADDITIONAL ALCOHOL INTO THIS APARTMENT YOU ARE PLACING HIM IN MORTAL DANGER.” Eggleston tells me this is “a joke” put up by Winston, and that he is forever trying to convince his girlfriends to paint something to hang over it.
Right on cue, Lesley, who “knows where a bottle is,” appears and offers to fix us a bourbon. Eggleston drains his, requests another, and at my urging sits at the Bösendorfer grand piano in the back room to play us a tune. He starts with a Robbie Burns number, Bluebells of Scotland, then a Chopin Mazurka and an improvisation based on Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, and although he sometimes uses the sustain pedal as a crutch, he plays well, with feeling.
Between performances, he downs more large drinks, and within half an hour has had four. A little staggered by the two that I’ve had myself, I realise that it’s time to leave when he starts to slur his words. He tells me “space is gelatinous,” seems to question Einstein’s theory of relativity, and says he will never stop taking photographs. “I just don’t know how not to do it.” When I make my excuses, he takes my hand, kisses it, and bids me farewell.
The next morning at the historic Arcade Restaurant in downtown Memphis, a sign on the wall puts me in mind of him: “To be born a gentleman is an accident, but to die one is an accomplishment.” That pretty much says it.