The Art of Being William Eggleston
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.
Born in Memphis on July 27, 1939, and raised in Sumner, Mississippi, Eggleston grew up eschewing the typical Southern boy’s penchant for hunting and sports, instead focusing his time and curiosities on art and music. He graduated from the Webb School, a boarding school in Bell Buckle, Tennessee, then attended Vanderbilt University for a year (he later also attended Delta State and Ole Miss) and acquired his first camera, a Canon rangefinder. Soon he got a Leica and was hooked. After seeing books like photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson’s The Decisive Moment and Walker Evans’ American Photographs, Eggleston decided to pursue photography professionally.
Although in the mid-1960s virtually all acceptable art photography was shot in black and white, Eggleston, never one to adhere to the norm, began experimenting with color film and a processing medium known as dye-transfer, a rich color saturation technique that had previously been used primarily for advertisements and product design. By this time he was teaching via a fellowship at Harvard and had his first group of dye-transfer photographs published in his 1974 portfolio 14 Pictures.
It was the 1976 MOMA exhibit, however, that catapulted Eggleston into the upper echelons of the art world, garnering both critical praise and savage reviews, setting the tone for the rest of his career. Critics called it “the most hated show of the year,” deeming his work at once both boring and garish. It caused such an uproar, however, that many in the photography and art world stood up and took notice of the young photographer who baffled many with his images of everyday things like ovens, showers, road signs, naked light bulbs, and seemingly everyday living rooms.
That same year, Rolling Stone commissioned Eggleston to photograph Jimmy Carter’s hometown of Plains, Georgia, on the eve of the presidential election. The project resulted in one of Eggleston’s most acclaimed limited-edition books of photographs, Election Eve, a two-volume series published in 1977 by movie producer Caldecott Chubb, heir to the Chubb insurance fortune. Typical of Eggleston’s unique and sometimes renegade vision, the book contained no photographs of the Carter family, but instead depicted beautifully haunting images of woods, ditches, gas station pumps, and decrepit shacks around the depressed Georgia countryside at the time.
From that point on, Eggleston began to start taking his place as one of the planet’s most acclaimed, and most unconventional, photographers. He began photographing all over the world, from Kenya to Kyoto, China to Niagara Falls, and here in his hometown from Graceland to grocery stores. Eggleston has had solo and group exhibits just about everywhere, at prestigious venues such as the Barbican Art Gallery and Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Corcoran Art Gallery in Washington, D.C., the aforementioned Whitney Museum of American Art, the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, the Foundation Cartier in Paris, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and dozens of others. He has also photographed the sets of films, made films, and had films made about him. He has won dozens of awards and accolades along the way, including the Getty Images Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004.
Along the way, he has become almost as famous for his personal life as for his photographic genius. It’s never been a secret that William Eggleston has marched to the beat of a diabolically different drummer, with a penchant for guns, booze, chain smoking, mistresses, outlandish behavior, and not caring one way or another what anyone thinks about all that. For the most part, it has only added to his allure.
When asked what have been the main things that have happened in his life since 1994, Eggleston smiles and says, “I don’t really know. Other than the 2008 retrospective at the Whitney and this recent auction, it’s all been kind of a blur of a whole lot of little things.”
One of those little things was posing for a 2005 fashion ad for designer Marc Jacobs, which he doesn’t even mention — probably because in the life of William Eggleston and the way he sees the world, it wasn’t that big of a deal to him. It came about when well-known German artist and fashion photographer Juergen Teller was assigned to photograph Eggleston for W magazine.
The two hit it off and ended up going on a road trip to Bavaria, where neither of them took a single photograph but stayed up all night drinking, with Eggleston playing Bach on the hotel’s piano. Teller, who had the contract to shoot all of the Jacobs ads, nervously asked Eggleston if he would pose for one and Eggleston agreed.
They shot the ad in a hotel room in Paris and the result was an image of Eggleston lying in bed with actress Charlotte Rampling, both of them dressed, Eggleston with a drink in one hand and his other wrapped around Rampling’s face.
In a 2010 essay Teller, writing for the British Vogue, recalled the string of events fondly, and wrote this about Eggleston:
“He has a different way of seeing, of looking — it’s completely unforced. And he never gives a damn whether a picture comes out or not. I’ve never met a freer man; the sense of freedom he has in his every thought, decision, and movement is extraordinary. His images give me hope; they capture the comedy and tragedy of life. He could never do what I do, I could never do what he does, but we respect each other’s work. As he once said to me, ‘Juergen, we have some things in common: smoking, drinking, and women. Photography just gets us out of the house.’”
That same year (2005), Eggleston released a film, Stranded in Canton, which consisted of black-and-white footage he had shot in 1973 and 1974 in and around Memphis, New Orleans, and Greenwood, Mississippi. Produced by Memphis filmmaker Robert Gordon and the aforementioned Caldecott Chubb, it premiered at the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival, and, like most things Eggleston, it met with extreme reactions. Some critics hated it just as some hated his exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, but some loved it and it became an instant cult classic with its cast of drug users, transvestites, geeks biting the heads off of chickens, and other characters, including Memphis musicians Furry Lewis and Jim Dickinson.
Film Fest Journal was not so amused, and wrote, “Unfortunately, the subjects of the gaze are not particularly interesting — often vulgar, pompous, crass, intoxicated, incoherent, under the influence of psychotropic drugs, or perpetually hamming it up before the camera to attract attention.”
Celebrated film critic Amy Taubin, however, was more mesmerized, writing, “One might venture, on the evidence of this swerving, lurching, ghostly video diary that, for Eggleston, time is chaos, against which still images and the rhythms of music are two forms of defense . . . . Untroubled by the niceties of focus or any kind of propriety for that matter — at one point, the camera seems irresistibly drawn to the zippers on the pants of every man in the room — Eggleston is part of the scene he chronicles in close-up, and the undercurrent of anxiety it inspires in him motors Stranded in Canton. ‘This was back in the days when everyone liked Quaaludes,’ he reminisces in voice-over. It’s a movie that could leave you enervated or drive you as crazy as the people on the screen.” In the following years, in fact, several of the subjects in the film died violent deaths by either suicide or murder.
Later that year, Eggleston himself was the subject of a documentary, Michael Almereyda’s William Eggleston in the Real World, which followed Eggleston on trips to Los Angeles, Kentucky, and New York, and featured rare footage of downtime and his personal life here in Memphis. And follow Eggleston is about the only thing Almereyda did. Although he tried repeatedly to coax Eggleston into explaining the mystery of his photography, Eggleston opted to stay mute on that throughout most of the film, saying only, “Whatever it is about pictures, photographs, it’s just about impossible to follow up with words. They don’t have anything to do with each other.”
In fact, much of the film depicts Eggleston just walking with his camera looking at things and taking photographs. In a New York Times article about the film, writer Terrence Rafferty asked Almereyda if that was strange for him, to which he replied, “Yeah, it’s innately weird, but after a while it was like following someone on a safari. There’s this ongoing suspense — when and what is he going to shoot?”
In addition to his own accomplishments, Eggleston continues to inspire and influence generations of young photographers. One of those is popular photographer Alex Prager, who was named in 2010 by Marie Claire magazine as one of “18 women who are changing the world.” Prager often cites Eggleston as the reason she became a photographer and says, “When I came across William Eggleston’s work for the first time, I was completely floored. I had never seen photography like it before and I didn’t understand the emotional response I was having to it. A picture of some dirty shoes underneath an aging bed isn’t usually something that keeps giving me the chills and makes me well up with tears, but his work had that effect on me. It was that reaction that made me want to become a photographer. I felt like he had done some kind of magic to them or infused a part of his life force into the pictures, and I wanted to find out how and see if I could teach myself to do something similar.”
Fast forward to 2010, when Eggleston, with his dye-transfer printing technique nearing its end because Kodak had ceased making the necessary paper (he had only about a thousand sheets left), began investigating new ways of printing his famed photos and new ones yet to come. The result was a new approach that would allow Eggleston to print photographs that were larger than the 16 x 20-inch format that was the maximum size possible with the established dye-transfer process.
“We were out at my son William’s house in Los Angeles, and Joshua Holdeman from Christie’s was there,” Eggleston recalls, “and we were taping off these big rectangles with masking tape, and they were just getting bigger and bigger. I don’t know how we really came up with it, but we decided to experiment with printing a photograph at 44 by 60 inches in a new pigment print process, and we were blown away with the results.”
Eggleston’s son Winston, who manages the Eggleston Trust and was also at the Los Angeles gathering, says, “We weren’t really expecting anything but this was great. There was so much more detail that this was entirely different thing from the dye-transfer prints.”
“What surprised us so much,” the senior Eggleston says, “was at that size in this different process I didn’t even recognize some of my own images that I had seen so many times. It was a different animal, and it didn’t reflect on demeaning the dye transfer.”
Holdeman was also blown away and came up with the idea to have an auction at Christie’s of a collection of these new large-format photographs, in part to raise funds for the Eggleston Trust but, equally importantly, to reintroduce Eggleston to a new, younger crowd of contemporary-art collectors who would begin collecting them for the image itself and not for the way in which they were printed, as many old-school collectors do.
Eggleston says that it worked and that he feels the new audience views his photography more like art than just photography. “Yes, I am glad to admit that,” he says. “They care about the actual image. They are becoming seen less as photographs and more like paintings. People are treating them as paintings.”
Holdeman, Eggleston, and his two sons spent the next year or so deliberating which images to print in this new fashion for the Christie’s auction, deciding which ones lent themselves to the new printing process and which ones didn’t. They also placed a special emphasis on choosing some select photographs from the original 1976 MOMA exhibit, knowing those would likely bring the highest prices.
On March 12, 2012, after the collection had been on display at Christie’s for five days, Eggleston sat in a private room above the Christie’s auction floor alongside his longtime wife, Rosa, and watched as his photographs were snapped up quickly by bidders from all over the world for much higher prices than they had estimated they would bring. The photograph that brought the highest price was Eggleston’s “Untitled, 1970,” an image of a tricycle that was the cover photo for the exhibition guide from the 1976 MOMA show. It sold for $578,500, the highest price ever paid at auction for an Eggleston photograph.
“It was exciting because we had no idea what to expect,” says Winston Eggleston. “Down in the main auction room there were people bidding, and on the left side of the room there was a row of people manning a bank of telephones with people calling in bids from all over the world. The auctioneer was very good at keeping it going between bidders. I believe he was the guy who presided over the first auction of photographs at Sotheby’s.”
“Well, I just sat there and watched,” recalls the photograher, never one to gush. “I wasn’t tabulating anything, or anything like that. It was good to have my whole family with me.”
“Christie’s is the best auction house in the world,” he continues. “I knew perfectly well this was the first time my photographs were escalated to this level. I’ve known it for so long I was really not impressed by it.” Then he thinks for a second and laughs, saying, “But looking back, I am.”
In Eggleston parlance, this means he was very happy.
Not everyone was as pleased, however. This was a sea change for some who have been passionate fans of his dye-transfer process prints, and one avid collector and longtime Eggleston supporter, Whitney Museum trustee and former Goldman Sachs executive Jonathan Sobel, filed a suit in federal court on April 4, 2012, claiming that the new sale diminished the value of his collection of some 190 Eggleston dye-transfer prints, valued at an estimated $3 million to $5 million. In the suit Sobel alleges that Eggleston reprinted images that he had purchased as limited-edition prints and the suit asks the court to bar Eggleston from printing any more of them.
Neither Eggleston nor his son Winston, also named in the suit, could comment on the matter, which instantly generated more headlines in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and dozens of art world publications and websites. But their attorney John Cahill has said the Sobel suit is without merit. Many agree, including Christie’s Joshua Holdeman, who was quoted as saying, “I don’t know of any photographers who haven’t produced multiple editions of the same images,” and maintains that the new photographs are different from the dye-transfer prints because of the printing process and their size. “My definition of limited-edition means you can’t produce identical objects.”
In an op-ed piece for Reuters, financial journalist Felix Salmon gave his opinion: “Eggleston has every right to create new editions of his work. Sobel owns vintage 16″ x 20″ dye-transfer prints; Eggleston can’t make more of those. But creating a brand-new series of 44″ x 60″ digital prints is perfectly fine.”
Eggleston has printed several editions of photographs, but not since 14 Pictures in 1974 has he printed any as limited-edition prints. Still, the controversy raises many questions about reproducing valuable photographs in the digital age and has caused a sizeable buzz among collectors, lawyers, and sellers. The lawsuit is still pending and no date for a trial, if it gets to that, has been set.
Back in Memphis, the Eggleston buzz took on more life when plans were announced about the possible creation of a William Eggleston museum here at an estimated cost of $15 million. Spearheading the project is New York- and Memphis-based attorney Mark Crosby, who was also instrumental in the creation of the Stax Museum of American Soul Music.
“The project began when local backers became convinced,” explains Crosby, “that it was important and pressing to publicly embrace Eggleston’s singular achievement as the most important artist working in the visual arts ever to come out of Memphis. Ultimately, we intend to contribute to Memphis an exquisitely beautiful public space for the permanent display of Eggleston’s and others’ work, an institution that engages the hearts and minds of all who come there.”
Mayor A C Wharton enthusiastically agrees. “The Eggleston archive is truly a treasure trove of authentic, homegrown Memphis creativity” he says. “William Eggleston’s singular and self-taught approach to photography changed the way that the world perceived the American South, as well as the way we perceive ourselves. Not only does Bill deserve to be celebrated here in his own hometown, but Memphis as a whole should be more widely recognized for being the cradle of creativity that we are. The Eggleston Museum should be a critical part of that effort.”
Mark Crosby says the plans at this point may include an affiliation with a major museum outside Memphis, adding, “We continue to pursue the possibility of locating Eggleston within Overton Park, further establishing the park’s fine-arts profile and making it an international destination.”
In the nearer future, William Eggleston himself plans to continue taking photographs regularly and is planning a major exhibit of his large-format photographs later this year at the Gagosian Gallery in Los Angeles, with whom he signed last year. He also has another book of photographs in the works, and plans to have his friend Gore Vidal write the forward. All this is typical of the artist who is famous for saying, “I am at war with the obvious,” he doesn’t want Vidal to write anything about photography. Now in his early seventies, Eggleston’s war with the obvious wages on.
ALL PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY EGGLESTON ARTISTIC TRUST
Tim Sampson was editor of Memphis magazine from 1992 to 1998; before that, he was founding editor of the Memphis Flyer, leading that newspaper from 1989 to 1992. Today, he is the communications director of the Soulsville Foundation, which operates the Stax Museum of American Soul Music.