The Art of Being William Eggleston

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William Eggleston (B. 1939) Untitled, 1970

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.

Back in Memphis, plans were announced about the possible creation of a William Eggleston museum here.

“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.”

William Eggleston (B. 1939) Untitled, 1970Mark 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. 


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.

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