Icons of Photography: William Eggleston

William Eggleston was born in Memphis, Tennessee, on July 27, 1939, and to some wealth. Elvis Presley was a little over three at the time. The backgrounds and circumstances of photographer and singer were otherwise just about as far apart as it’s possible to imagine for near contemporaries in more or less the same part of the world.

That’s because their part of the world was the Mississippi Delta, the hundreds of miles of rich flat, alluvial farmland which stretch south from the fringes of Memphis. When Elvis was a boy, his minor crook of a father was locked up in Parchman Farm, the penal colony in the heart of the Delta. By contrast, Eggleston was the grandson of a judge whose extensive family farmlands bordered on Parchman. A prince of the Delta’s liberal ascendancy, Eggleston went to military school and attended a few universities, without ever graduating. He was at Ole Miss, the elite university in the lovely little hill town of Oxford, not long after it was forcibly desegregated: race is one of Eggleston’s recurring subjects.

Yet the paradoxes of the region are also those of both Elvis the singer and Bill the photographer. In some ways, it is barely the modern world down there. Its past hangs on its present the way Spanish Moss does on its oak trees. The disparity between the (overwhelmingly white) rich and (overwhelmingly black) poor is such that it’s commonly known as ‘the most southern place on earth’. Memphis itself, though, is also one of the places the modern world came into being. Not just the music – but the first supermarkets (Piggly Wiggly, as it happens) and the first big chain hotel (Holiday Inn) and FedEx, too.

As Elvis turned those tensions into music, Eggleston turned them into pictures. Uncertain of direction, he listened to a friend’s advice: that he should photograph what he hated. So he took pictures of gas stations, convenience stores etc. He found his universal there in the particular of the disregarded and mundane, his eye transmuting his hate into a kind of love.

His best-known single photograph is an early one, The Red Ceiling, with its intense, saturated colours, deep and powerful like a Rothko. That power is in part a matter of technology. Like most of his finest work, it was printed by the laborious, wildly expensive dye-transfer process: each of the four colours (CYMK) is a separate sheet of film; they are then laid, by hand, one on top of another. Eggleston: ‘The Red Ceiling is so powerful, that in fact I’ve never seen it reproduced on the page to my satisfaction. When you look at the dye it is like red blood that’s wet on the wall . . . A little red is usually enough, but to work with an entire red surface was a challenge.’

His compositional fascination with corners and angles is there in that picture, too. ‘Like jokes and like lessons’ was his own analysis of his pictures. His real world was also in The Red Ceiling: both his own personal life and the haphazardness of the Delta. The light socket has been jerry-rigged to power the room. There are cartoonish sex-position diagrams on the wall. It’s the guest room of a dentist friend of Eggleston’s who was later murdered.

Many of his pictures are made in their subject’s absence. Covering Jimmy Carter’s election campaign for Rolling Stone magazine he photographed landscapes rather than political workers. Invited to the set of John Huston’s film of the musical Annie, he waited till everyone had gone then photographed the empty mansion as if through the little orphan’s eyes. When he photographed Elvis’ mansion – in a manner that established a new, consciously disquieting way of picturing the domestic interior – its owner was already a few years dead.

He began taking pictures in the late 1950s. This is how his official biography puts it. 1957: Acquires his first camera, a Canon rangefinder. 1958: Acquires his first Leica. 1959: Sees Henri Cartier-Bresson’s The Decisive Moment and Walker Evans’ American Photographs. Years later, he told writer Stanley Booth: ‘I couldn’t imagine anybody doing anything more than making a perfect Cartier-Bresson. Which I could do, finally.’ Passion doused in self-confidence: a reasonable recipe for an Eggleston picture.

In the early 1960s, he knocked around the world with ‘international jet set bohemians’ – Guatemala, Kathmandu etc. Back home, he hung out with Memphis’ Midtown set – hippie boho drunken druggie wildness in the city’s loveliest tree-lined avenues of large, wooden homes. He was friends with the Chiltons, Memphis artocrats and parents to Alex, singer and prime-mover of the Box Tops and Big Star – the power pop cult group who used The Red Ceiling on the cover of their Radio City album.

He turned to colour photography in the mid-1960s. ‘The world is in colour,’ he said simply. Though he is sometimes presented as an outsider, he found his way into the centre with the ease of a southern gentleman – an image he has long played and toyed with. In 1969, he took his pictures to New York, casually popping into MoMA, opening a suitcase of colour slides and showing them to its curator of photography John Szarkowski. MoMA bought one. He got a job teaching at Harvard. He discovered dye-transfer printing. He had that red picture on the Big Star cover and, three years later, in 1976, a show at MoMA in 1976 – the first one-person colour photography show there.

That was three years after Paul Simon had reflected on the poetics of colour photography in his song Kodachrome. As strange as it seems now, it was only with Eggleston (and Stephen Shore) that colour photography – and supermarkets and parking lots – became acceptable in the art world. Warhol’s soup can prints had been around for years, as had Hockney’s swimming pool paintings and Richard Hamilton’s collages. Yet Eggleston’s colour photographs of the actual, modern world we all live in came as a great shock – a reflection on the conservatism of both the art and photography rackets.

Simply, he changed the way the world looks to us. His first book was, winningly, called William Eggleston’s Guide. Like many great lookers, he saw as if through the eyes of a Martian, finding the ‘there’ in the ‘here’. A stranger in his own hometown. ‘I had to face the fact that what I had to do was go out into foreign landscapes.’ Memphis, that is. ‘What was new back then was shopping centres, and I took pictures of them.’ While others may have recoiled from such brash consumerism, Eggleston fell in love with what he saw – without ever really understanding his adoration of the mundane. Any more than we understand when we look at his pictures. Like him, we only know we are trapped in that love. We do, though, grasp that his demotic visions force us (or perhaps tempt us) to accept that to reject the commonplace world of shopping malls would to reject humanity. The title of his 1989 collection was The Democratic Forest – the one in which we all, like it or not, live. At its best, an Eggleston picture makes us more human.

He has published a dozen or more books of his work and his world – which has extended far beyond the baroque south, to Los Alamos, Louisiana, Kenya, Berlin and British factories. Back home in Memphis, he has been married, for half a century, to the former Mississippi princess Rosa Dosset. As teenagers they roamed the Delta in matching baby-blue Cadillacs.

There have been girlfriends, too. One was Warhol superstar Viva. Another was Marsha, star of his 1970s art-flick Stranded In Canton. There was also whisky, a green Bentley and gunfights with his long-time mistress Lucia Burch. ‘The line between his persona and himself is very blurry and that’s how he likes it,’ said the late Jim Dickinson, friend and Memphis legend – he played piano on the Rolling Stones’ Wild Horses, among many other things.

Eggleston plays the piano, too – well. He has written a symphony entitled Bonnie Prince Charlie and appeared on a Big Star album. He played Jerry Lee Lewis’s father in the movie Great Balls Of Fire. In his book, It Came From Memphis, Robert Gordon wrote: ‘Eggleston is as dashing a man as God has put on this earth.’

© Peter Silverton 2019

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