November 29, 2022
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Frame by Frame: The Life and Career of William Eggleston

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Those who know Memphis know weddings — and wedding photography — are serious business in this town. So it’s especially telling to hear how one unconventional photographer plied his trade at the local nuptials.

“He went to photograph somebody’s wedding,” says one associate, “and apparently he was shuffling around photographing ashtrays or something.” To be fair, ceramics can be quite beguiling. But, as the story continues, “he then presented the bride and groom with a set of prints, and they were just of the sky.”

The photographer, of course, is William Eggleston Jr., 83, a titan in a long tradition of iconoclastic firebrands whose art sprang from the Bluff City. And the story, related by curator Mark Holborn in the 2009 documentary The Colourful Mr. Eggleston, is an object lesson in the artist’s blithe disregard for conventional expectations. Yet that iconoclasm alone didn’t center him in the world of fine art photography, starting in the 1970s. Shrugging off the status quo was merely an afterthought in his single-minded pursuit of a vision that persists to this day, continuing to yield hidden gems of character, composition, and color as his archives are further explored.

The latest example: The Outlands, an Eggleston exhibition at the David Zwirner Gallery in New York, opening November 10th, accompanied by a book offering fresh insights into his unique photographic language.

That his vision is bound up with the most mundane objects and landscapes is part of its mystery, and that vision’s power makes it hard to define. As the artist himself says in the same documentary, “Often, people ask what I’m photographing. Which is a hard question to answer. And the best I’ve come up with is, I just say, ‘Life today.’” Emulating the open spaces of his photographs, the artist takes a supremely unhurried pause, then adds slyly, “I don’t know whether they believe me or not. Or what that means.”

Eggleston’s gravitation toward the margins of society may be the key to how his photographs imbue even the most banal images with a sense of the uncanny or even the foreboding.

One gathers that putting his subject matter into words doesn’t matter much to Eggleston, nor does explaining the provenance of particular photographs. He’s not currently granting interviews, and such dialogue is of dubious value in any case. Johnny Hopkins, senior lecturer in popular music and media industries at Solent University, Southampton, U.K., having interviewed and written about Eggleston at length, notes, “He’s a bit like Bob Dylan, really. He’ll give these amazing, funny, insightful interviews that actually don’t give anything away. He’s very elliptical. I think it’s a genius skill, to be honest — to be engaging and insightful and intelligent and intriguing, but still maintain the secrets.”

Nevertheless, through published sources, my own recent conversations with him in his Memphis home, and interviews with scholars and his family, a clearer picture of Eggleston as a living artist emerges. To see him recline on the sofa, ascot undone, one immediately senses the erudite Renaissance man, the avid reader of Robert Burns, the classical pianist and improviser who might hold forth on Degas at any moment — but also the rascal, pondering the onset of happy hour. He contains multitudes.

As his daughter, Andra Eggleston, notes in The Colourful Mr. Eggleston, “I know that his photographs are very indicative of who he is and how he sees life. And I’ve always seen that, not only in his photographs, but how he looks at things and what he looks at. And what he notices. He definitely has a different eye. I’ve seen him stare for hours at a china set. And not a particularly valuable china set. It’s sort of maddening, too, but it’s extraordinary.”

It was certainly maddening to the critics when Eggleston had his breakthrough show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in 1976. By then, he had already been working with color images for over a decade, but the art world had not quite caught up to him. “Perfectly banal, perhaps. Perfectly boring, certainly” was the terse verdict of a New York Times review of the exhibition.

Nonetheless, with its vivid color images addressing such galvanizing subjects as a tricycle, cars by the side of the road, or sometimes just the side of the road, the show marked a paradigm shift. While Eggleston’s were not the first color images to grace MoMA’s walls, the accompanying book, William Eggleston’s Guide, was the first collection of color images published by the museum, thanks to John Szarkowski, then curator of photography at MoMA, who had championed Eggleston’s work since 1969. And he was not alone.

While pioneering American artists like Lee Friedlander, Diane Arbus, and Garry Winogrand had already found the sublime in mundane street scenes and shop windows from the late-Fifties on, their works were resolutely black and white, the default medium for art photography. Even a decade later, using color film struck many as crass, echoing advertising, magazine illustrations, or the unschooled family snapshots of the hoi polloi.

As Hopkins sees it, the shock of the color images ultimately worked in Eggleston’s favor. “It probably did his career a lot of good to have that kind of sensationally negative publicity,” he says. “A bit like a rock-and-roll group, like the Sex Pistols or the Rolling Stones winding people up. Or indeed Elvis. When Eggleston’s color work started to get known, it was seen as vulgar. But it’s not vulgar at all, it’s beautiful and powerful.”

It was a paradoxical moment. As the artist’s son, William Eggleston III, notes, “Dad’s career began with the MoMA show and the Guide, even though that show was greatly panned when it debuted. And it took some 25 years for those works to be understood and appreciated.”

The Decisive Moment

Today, the works from the MoMA show are canonical, and Eggleston is widely regarded as a visionary artist. But it was not always so, especially as he was creating the photographs that later would be among his most celebrated. After a bucolic, affluent childhood on the family cotton farm near Sumner, Mississippi, playing piano from the age of 4, with a penchant for tinkering, Eggleston tried stints at several colleges. While at Vanderbilt, a friend gave him a Leica camera, and he began teaching himself the basics of photography. It was around then that he discovered the work of French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson.

“Henri was one of the greats,” Eggleston told me in 2017. “He was my first discovery, in the sense of, I knew at once that he was so much better than anybody whose work I had seen. And I still feel that way. In black and white. He would not even entertain working with color. He was so good he didn’t have to.”

“The great influence was Cartier-Bresson,” Holborn confirms in The Colourful Mr. Eggleston, noting that Cartier-Bresson’s theory of the “decisive moment” impacted Eggleston’s intuitive, “shoot from the hip” approach. “There’s such extraordinary structure,” Holborn says of Cartier-Bresson. “When you break down the frame, the frame has its inherent geometry. And it’s fluid. And I think that’s what Eggleston aspired to.”

By his early twenties, Eggleston had begun pursuing his vision in Memphis, where he and his wife, Rosa (whose family was also of some means), hoped to settle. In one of history’s great wrinkles, the Egglestons befriended an older couple with a passion for the arts, whose son, Alex Chilton, would soon make his own mark on the world of music via the Box Tops, Big Star, and an iconoclastic solo career. As Rosa explains in Holly George-Warren’s biography of Chilton, A Man Called Destruction, “We didn’t have a place to stay, and the Chiltons kind of adopted us. We were thinking about driving back to Mississippi, and Mary [Chilton] said, ‘Oh, spend the night here!’ We had this rapport going on. They did not seem like parents.”

In Robert Gordon’s book, It Came from Memphis, Eggleston tells the author, “Sidney and Mary Chilton, Alex’s parents, were some of my closest friends … Mary held what you might call a salon, and things happened in the house. People would come there; it was an art gallery. They had a piano and Sidney would play. I would play, different people would come in.”

Eggleston would eventually make a cameo as a pianist on Alex Chilton’s recording of “Nature Boy,” but long before then, the Chiltons let Eggleston set up a darkroom in their carriage house. “During the Sixties I had an intense period of development,” Eggleston tells Gordon, “and by the late Sixties I had formed a way of working that was thought out, that is still continuing. It’s evolved, but it’s identifiable as the same person’s work.”

Having originally emulated Cartier-Bresson’s use of black and white, Eggleston began working with color film in 1965, his instincts already so honed from his pre-color days that his very first exposure became one of his most iconic images. “There’s one picture of a boy with a shopping cart,” remembers the younger Eggleston, “and it’s an image I knew well. Dad says it was his first color photograph. It was taken at a grocery store on Lamar called Hogue & Knott. I remember the store from when I was 6 years old.”

Yet Eggleston’s son William stresses that interpretations of his father’s work should not “bend towards anything to do with sentimentality or the past.” The photographer was not memorializing a lost South, but confronting its changes frankly.

In The Colourful Mr. Eggleston, Rosa Eggleston — “Dad’s original fan,” says William — reinforces this, recalling a crucial moment in her husband’s art: “Bill at one time said to his great, highly respected friend, ‘Well, what am I going to photograph? Everything around here is so ugly.’ And our friend said, ‘Photograph the ugly stuff.’ We were surrounded everywhere with this plethora of shopping centers and ugly stuff. And so that is really initially what he started photographing.”

Aside from his use of color, Eggleston’s disciplined shooting style showed Cartier-Bresson’s continued influence. “I never crop,” the senior Eggleston mused when we spoke. “I may owe this to Henri. The frame is the frame. To crop is not a good thing.” Furthermore, Eggleston rarely takes more than one shot of any given image. With these guidelines, and an eye for framing images rapidly, Eggleston was off and running. By the early Seventies, he had discovered what he found to be the best method for printing his images, the dye transfer process, used chiefly at the time by advertisers. To Eggleston, it was simply the state of the art, and the method conveyed his images’ hues as no other could, further sealing his reputation as a maverick of color.

“He Just Does What He Wants”

Meanwhile, with his wife Rosa’s financial support for their family unmooring him from concerns of gainful employment, photographing prolifically but independent and hungry for experience, Eggleston indulged his taste for the unconventional in more ways than one. “He’s the freest person I’ve ever met. He just does what he wants,” muses photographer Juergen Teller in The Colourful Mr. Eggleston, and as the Seventies unfolded, that meant a recreational and romantic life as untethered to conventional mores as his art was. The always dapper photographer was an unlikely fixture in the burgeoning scene of artists, oddballs, and outcasts blooming in Memphis at the time. (This also helped jumpstart rock bands’ use of Eggleston’s work for their album covers, starting with Big Star’s Radio City LP.)

“When you break down the frame, the frame has its inherent geometry. And it’s fluid. And I think that’s what Eggleston aspired to.”

— Mark Holborn, curator

A slice of this era is documented in footage he shot on an innovative new video camera at the time, the Sony Portapak. He experimented with the camera only briefly, in 1974, but in that time documented everything from the sleepy faces of his children to visits with local bluesmen to the freakishness of the Memphis underground. Scenes with the latter are striking for both their carnality and their flights of poetic inspiration, and Eggleston recorded it all unflinchingly — as with his still photography, there’s an implied deadpan in his lens that prompts viewers to look beyond superficial aspects.

In 2008, the Portapak footage was edited by Robert Gordon into a single film, Stranded in Canton, revealing in gripping detail the world of bohemian Memphis at the time. As Hopkins notes, “All that film footage he recorded, of these mad characters that were part of his social world, really tells you about his life and his lifestyle. Most of his pictures are very ordered, and meticulous. But many of them have a dark side to them, and a mystery, and that darker side really comes through in Stranded in Canton.”

Eggleston’s gravitation toward the margins of society may be the key to how his photographs imbue even the most banal images with a sense of the uncanny or even the foreboding. This extends to his lesser-known work, such as his images of Elvis Presley’s Graceland, taken soon after it opened to tourists in the early 1980s. That’s Hopkins’ particular obsession, as detailed in his chapter, “Memphis Icons: Elvis Presley, William Eggleston and the ‘Lost’ Photographs of Graceland,” from the forthcoming Oxford University Press collection, Rethinking Elvis.

The Eggleston Artistic Trust

Over the years, Eggleston’s work spoke for itself, only growing in stature, and he continued to publish and exhibit his images as the twentieth century came to a close. Notable exhibitions were 1999’s William Eggleston and the Color Tradition at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; 2008’s William Eggleston: Democratic Camera, Photographs and Video 1961–2008, which premiered at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art; and 2016’s William Eggleston Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Still, under-recognized collections such as the Graceland photos dot the artist’s history, and even archives represented by the Guide and other publications were barely explored until recent years. The emergence of new work from this backlog is largely due to the efforts of the artist’s sons, William and Winston.

As William explains, “I helped Dad set up the Eggleston Artistic Trust when I was in my twenties [in 1992], and then I really wasn’t involved in it at all for about ten years. I got involved again about 11 years ago, and it’s taken a lot of very deliberate work over that time to get people to appreciate and buy works that are not the few iconic works that are in the Guide and elsewhere.”

Indeed, the eventual success of Eggleston’s initial exhibits and publications has served to obscure the sheer volume of images that he produced in his most active years. With at least 50,000 photographs in total, there is a depth to the Eggleston archives that continues to bring revelations and insights into his work, thanks largely to the efforts of William, Winston, Holborn, and the elder Eggleston himself. In recent years, a kind of Eggleston Renaissance has been under way.

As a case in point, 1989’s The Democratic Forest, edited by Holborn, was just the tip of an immense iceberg, 150 images out of 12,000 in the archive by that name (the other major archives being The Kodachromes [5,000 images] and Los Alamos [2,600 images]). When William returned to working with the Trust, he set out to reveal the depth of his father’s work, editing new volumes for the art publisher Steidl. After first perfecting their editorial process with multi-volume publications drawn from The Kodachromes archive (Chromes, edited with Thomas Weski) and the Los Alamos archive (Los Alamos Revisited), he and Holborn winnowed the 12,000 Democratic Forest images down to 1,010, which then comprised a ten-volume set, also titled The Democratic Forest.

“He’s a bit like Bob Dylan, really. He’ll give these amazing, funny, insightful interviews that actually don’t give anything away. He’s very elliptical. I think it’s a genius skill, to be honest — to be engaging and insightful and intelligent and intriguing, but still maintain the secrets.” — Johnny Hopkins, Solent University (UK)

This increased the profile of a period in Eggleston’s career that had previously received less attention. “There were certain images from the Guide that, over the years, started slowly showing up in auctions,” William says. “But the Guide was just 48 images. And for a long time that was considered the holy grail of Dad’s work. What happened after that didn’t seem to matter as much. So he was suffering a little bit from a kind of greatest-hits syndrome.”

If the Steidl volumes helped counteract that tendency, so did auctioning new prints. In 2012, the Trust put three dozen prints, some previously unseen, up for sale at Christie’s, using advanced digital printing methods to create large-format prints more than five feet across. The pieces collectively fetched nearly six million dollars. “That was a very stressful, risky moment,” says William. “But we felt that we needed something to really shake things up and establish a new paradigm. And it did.”

Last year, they took the process to new heights, issuing a three-volume set, The Outlands, which dug even deeper into The Kodachromes archive than Chromes had, with three volumes derived from the same source as the Guide and Chromes. Noting that The Outlands is dedicated to his mother Rosa, who died in 2015, William reflects, “It’s been quite the ride, going through this process the last 11 years with Dad and Winston. And this moment is the end of that process. Truly, there’s not a large corner of the archive that hasn’t had a light shined on it. This is really it. But I think what’s most amazing about The Outlands is that Mark and I had this project in mind for years, as the last go from The Kodachromes. And we expected when we put that together that we would be including stuff from the Guide, stuff from Chromes, and it would just be this kind of definitive pass. But the great revelation was that we ended up with 400 images that were unseen in those volumes. That was shocking.”

Layers upon layers: The Outlands paved the way to this month’s Eggleston show of the same name at the David Zwirner gallery in New York, opening November 10th. Coinciding with the show, the gallery is publishing a unique single-volume book, The Outlands: Selected Works, which William considers the most carefully curated statement of his father’s work.

“That book,” says William, “has had more work put into than any other book that Dad’s ever published. In terms of time and expense spent on the color corrections, it was probably ten times what we did on any of the other books. And with 109 plates, it’s a much more concentrated presentation of The Outlands three-volume work. It also bookends his career against his first book, William Eggleston’s Guide, because it’s all from the same body of work, The Kodachromes, but it’s mostly unseen images from that archive.”

Not unlike his father, William takes a long pause to consider his words carefully, then adds, “The last decade has been an instrumental time in establishing the greater breadth of Dad’s work. I think what we’re going to see in New York on November 10th is really the culmination of his career.”


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