The Art of Being William Eggleston
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At 72, William Eggleston is still an incredibly striking man. When I first met him back in 1994 — to interview him for a feature article in this magazine — he had just arrived home from photographing detergent boxes at a store on Summer Avenue, and was dressed in a white cotton shirt and rumpled khakis tucked into his then-signature leather Austrian riding boots.
On this day in April 2012, when we visit at the offices of his Eggleston Trust, he is sitting back in a chair with his legs crossed, draped in an elegant midnight-blue suit and fancy white shirt, with an undone red silk bowtie hanging loosely from the collar. His silver hair slicked down in place, he’s sipping a Coca-Cola from a retro-vintage glass bottle, with rusted vintage Coca-Cola signs scattered on the wood-paneled wall behind him. The setting looks like a cross between a print advertisement for the soft-drink giant (believe me: they are missing out) and, whether he realizes it or not, one of his own photographs. When I joke with him, telling him he didn’t have to get all dressed up just for me, he chuckles and quips right back, “Oh, I didn’t. I had this on at a party last night.” At 72, Bill Eggleston still hasn’t lost his edge.
In many ways, not much has changed with Eggleston since 1994. He still takes photographs every day, almost always armed with one of his Leica cameras. He has two of them with him today, an older model and a new one that the company customized and gave to him. He still takes only one photo of any subject, never taking a second shot of the same thing. He has had numerous solo and group exhibits nationally and around the globe, including one huge retrospective in 2008 at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, the last time before this past spring that he made big headlines.
Eggleston still rarely gives press interviews and, although he is in great spirits, struggles a bit during this one because he still doesn’t like to talk about himself. In fact, he’d much rather dissect and explain a complicated photographic printing process than discuss the coterie of celebrities who collect his photographs, and with whom he is friends, or the emotions that were running through him back in March, when he watched 36 of his prints sell at auction in less than one hour to bidders from all over the world for a staggering $5.9 million, with one single print selling for more than half a million dollars.
He once again turned the art world on its ear with this auction, just like he did in 1976 with his first breakthrough exhibition, a collection of photographs shown at New York’s Museum of Modern Art that shocked critics and collectors alike because he had the audacity to exhibit photographs in rich, saturated color and refer to them as “art.” This was unheard of at the time — because virtually all fine-art photography had been black and white — and it set the stage for a controversial career that has made him one of the most important photographers in the world and one of Memphis’ most prized native sons.