The Art of Being William Eggleston

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William Eggleston (B. 1939) Untitled, 1970

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.

It's never been a secret that William Eggleston has marched to the beat of a diabolically different drummer.

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.”

William Eggleston (B. 1939) Untitled, 1973

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