The Condition of Music

William Eggleston

Since the publication of William Eggleston's Guide, and its concomitant show at New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1976, Eggleston's reputation has moved in two contrary directions. To his admirers, he's the first great colour photographer. But to others, especially younger artists on less familiar terms with photography's specific history, he's a name and little more. Which is too bad, because many of them could learn a lot from him. I went down to Memphis half-expecting to be met by a madman with a glass of vodka in one hand and a shotgun in the other; that's the image often propagated of the man. Instead, I found a dapper 60 year-old living in a large, lovely house on the east side of town, his study stocked with musical instruments and recording equipment. He was generous with his time, thoughtful, funny, ornery when he wanted to be, and possessed of supreme, and occasionally disingenuous indifference to almost everything. Eggleston's first answer to nearly every question was 'I don't know', or 'I never think about that', or 'I don't care about that' - an interviewer's nightmare, until I realised that he was simply being laconic in the extreme. Left in silence for some time, he'd eventually address himself to the matter at hand.

Jim Lewis: To what extent is the appeal of photography tied to the appeal of colour? If you had been born 40 years earlier, would you have ended up as a black and white photographer?

William Eggleston: The world's in colour and I see in colour. I started out making black and white pictures, printing my own stuff, but I never really had much interest in it. I remember the scene in colour. I suppose I'm kind of disappointed to get back to it later and see it in black and white.

Do you dream in colour?

Always. I've never had a black and white dream, even as a child. I saw intense colours in my dreams. I still do.

You grew up over the border here, in Mississippi, right?

I grew up about a hundred miles south, in the country, a pretty remote place. And Memphis was the big city that people would come to, to do anything or get anything.

Are your photographs about memory?

I don't know. A lot more in the past than today, I would guess. I probably think a lot about my childhood, as opposed to the present. But that's not a big deal to me; it's got nothing to do with my photography.

When you first started putting together the Guide were you aware of what a break it was with tradition?

No. A pioneer type feeling? I didn't feel that way, simply because I didn't have any idea who else might have been working that way. I knew basically what was going on, the history. I had seen things in collections. But I thought maybe somebody out there was doing something very similar to me. It turns out it was not so, but I didn't know that. I still don't have very much contact with what other photographers are doing. I don't spend much time looking at other people's pictures. It's never interested me. In colour there wasn't anything to look at that was the kind of photography I wished and wanted to do. I just... made it up.

There were movies.

Yeah, certain movies where colour was really used - particularly Hitchcock movies. North by Northwest, I think, was one where the colour was brilliant. But with most colour movies, that's not true. They're mostly filled with irresponsible uses of colour.

What does that mean, irresponsible?

It seems that a lot of movies have colour film in the camera, but whoever's directing it and is charged with pointing the camera doesn't seem to be organising the frame with colour in mind. They refuse to bring in the element of structure.

What about abstract painting?

I love abstract painting. I spent a lot of time looking at it. I bet that subconsciously it had something to do with what I was trying to get at.

Can you name anyone who you learned from?

Not any one painter. My favourite painter has always been Kandinsky.

How come?

I don't know.

A friend of mine told me about coming down here to visit you, a few years back, and you played Chopin on the piano for her.


I found that striking. Because the way you talk about your own work is almost clinical, and Chopin seemed like the last thing that would fit with your aesthetics.

Chopin is not one of my favourites. I've always been intensely interested in J. S. Bach.

Yes. I would have thought Bach, Haydn.

I love Haydn. Bach interests me, probably because it's kind of clinical. There's really not a great deal of romance. There is, in his way, but we know nothing about what went through his mind in 1690.

Do your photographs aspire to the condition of music?

Well, I may be using the same discipline as people who write music. I don't see pictures when I'm listening to music, and I don't hear music looking at pictures, but I bet there's something in the two that complements each other.

The reason I'm asking all this is because the idea that art photography should be pure to its own aesthetics seems to be more questionable to young photographers now than it was when you started out.

That's because in our time there really wasn't any colour to look at. There's really more of it out there now.

Is that a good thing or a bad thing, or are you indifferent?

I never think about it... I've frankly become relatively content that these are my own inventions. It doesn't bother me, that I'm not continuing some history or tradition. I just don't think about it.

Were you surprised that the reaction to the Guide was so negative?

Not terribly. I read some of the things. What they were talking about didn't make much sense to me. It really didn't have much to do with the pictures, or anything.

Is it true that you don't look through the viewfinder when you're shooting?

Sometimes I don't. If you get accustomed to a certain focal length, when you raise the camera, the frame's already composed, because you've done it so many times before. And I've never had any big deal about lining everything up. I probably got a lot out of looking at Degas: the composition, the railings, the table, for example, all at angles.

How often are you surprised when you get your film back?

Not very often. I assume it's going to be the way I saw it. Of course, I have stuff where I thought the exposure dial was at 1/250th and it was really half a second [laughs]. That will happen, but I don't lose any sleep over it.

I think of photography as being, by its nature, beholden to accidents.

I don't go for that. I don't think mine's accidental a bit. I like very much the idea of making a lot of photographs appear accidental, but that's definitely a joke, a personal thing, for me to have some fun.

In retrospect, the red ceiling (Greenwood, Mississippi, 1973) was a seminal image. Was it a breakthrough for you?

No. It did this: I'd had other dye transfer prints made, but this one truly backed up my belief in the process being able to do what no other could do. It taught me what dye transfer is capable of.

Where did you take it?

I knew some people down in Mississippi, and this was a friend of mine that had a house in front and a small back house which had been the servants' house. He was kind of an unusual person, taste-wise, and he painted the different rooms different colours. He had a blue one, a yellow one, a red one. I really thought it was great.

There's another one from the same period of a man standing naked by a bed.

That's the same man. Not in his red-room house; that's his regular house, in his bedroom. Right next door was his wife's room, which was another totally different colour. He's dead now. He had a tragic death.

What happened?

He was in a fire. In his house. He died.

Looking around the house, here, it's clear that you like equipment. I've read that you have a collection of guns.

That's true... I don't shoot. I'm not a particularly good shot. But I think they're really beautiful things. [Brings out a 1929 Colt .38 Special from a cupboard in his dining room.] This is one of the most elegant things. It was for accuracy and target shooting. It's not a protection type gun. I don't think I've ever even shot it. It's so fine, I don't want to. I got it in Colorado, way out in the middle of nowhere. This man had all sorts of things, beautiful inlaid knives... He had this, and I said 'Good Lord, let me see that!' - here, hold it, and cock this back. But you have to release it gently, because it's not good to snap it without a cartridge in. You feel how silky smooth that action is?

It really is a beautiful machine.

That's what fascinates me about them. There's nothing like the feel of them. Form and function. It's like it couldn't have turned out any other way. [Slips it behind the cushion on his couch.]

Don't forget it's back there...

That's where I usually keep it.

How important is being from the South?

I'm glad you asked that. I don't and never have considered myself a Southerner. I was labelled so simply because I'm from here, and I know people here and I know this place. But I don't feel any kinship with Southern artists at all.

There's nothing distinctive about the light in the South?

Yeah, there is. It's softer. There's always dust in the air that makes the light a little softer than in other parts of the country - in the same way that the light can be absolutely beautiful in the clear desert, or high altitudes. It's just different.

Have you been places where you felt you couldn't photograph?

The only environments where I can't work are places that are set up, or tourist places.

Although you did photograph Graceland.

Graceland was an example. Nothing's real there. It was tough to shoot. Really... tough. I often decided I wasn't going to do anything. It took a lot of time. I had access to the house from when the gates closed, at five o'clock, say, until they opened in the morning. I could be there for as long or as short a time as I liked. A lot of nights I'd spend hours and not take a single picture. I brought two floodlights in, with long cords, and I finally decided on this approach: I would leave the camera shutter open and move the lights. So I took exposures that lasted a long, long time. Minutes. And that was the only way I figured I could get any depth from this place.

I've been to Graceland three times now, and I still can't understand the place, visually or any other way.

I don't think I ever could, either, and I spent many nights there, practically alone. It never made any sense.

How many pictures did you get out of the assignment, finally?

Not many. I basically got one picture per room. Maybe two. But there aren't that many rooms; it's not that big a house.

Was Elvis important to you? Did he mean something to you?

No. I was never interested in Elvis. I'm still not.

Is it harder or easier for you to take pictures of things that you care a lot about?

I don't think it really makes any difference. It's just that it was impossible to figure out what to do with the place, camera-wise.

But in a larger sense, I don't think of you as someone who takes pictures of his friends, the way many photographers do.

No, I really don't. I have very few pictures of family and friends. Very, very, very few.

Why is that?

No particular reason. It just doesn't ordinarily come up. If I have a particular friend call up and say, 'Will you take a picture of me?' I say, 'Come over, I'd be delighted'. But that's very rare.

Have you ever taken a picture of yourself?

Two times. Two exposures, early one morning.

When you take pictures of people, do you have any trick to make it work, so that they don't freeze up?

Usually I can sense that it's not going to work and I just don't do it. If I sit in front of a grocery store, and some stranger's out there, if he sees a camera being pulled out and I can tell he minds me, I'll stop.

You never got your ass kicked for taking a picture?

Occasionally I will. But usually what I'll say is, [in an overtly upbeat, ingenuous voice] 'May I take your picture? I'm from Memphis!' I have found that always works. They say, 'Oh, sure'. There's some magic about that, 'I'm from Memphis!' I just stumbled on it. Nobody told me that secret. You can use it yourself. Just say, 'Hey, I'm from Memphis!' For some reason they know that word 'Memphis'. You could say some other city, I don't think it would have the same ring to it. Say, 'I'm from Savannah', I don't think that would work.

It works overseas, too?

Oh, yeah. Memphis is one of the few places... you could go to Tibet, and say 'I'm from Memphis!', and they'd say, 'Ohhhh, Elvis!' You couldn't say any other name. Jesus Christ they never heard of...

What do you know about photography, now, that you didn't know 20 or 30 years ago?
I don't know how to answer that... Some of my recent work is different just because I've taken so many pictures that often I'll begin to take one and almost immediately know I've already taken that picture before. It does happen, sometimes, and it didn't happen 30 years ago. But I don't think the quality of the work is any better or worse. It's changed, but there's no better or worse to it, at all.

It's changed. It seems somewhat less lurid now.

Yeah, you're right. I did go through one period where I was kind of intoxicated with these 'arresting images'. Usually with direct flash, like the red ceiling. And then I had the attitude that I had done everything that I could do in that genre. Whether that's true or not, I don't know, but that's the way it felt. And I rarely use flash anymore, hardly ever. But then, I was working with 25 ASA Kodachrome. That's what speed it was back then. There weren't any 400 ASA colour films.

The earlier work also seem to be a little more content-oriented.

Probably that's true. See, after that early period of colour, when I was putting together The Democratic Forest (1989), I had this notion of what I called a democratic way of looking around: that nothing was more important or less important, so therefore, it had less to do with content.

But is that really true? Can you take a picture of anything?

Yeah, I'm very convinced of that. And I got that notion from, I think it was Garry Winogrand. He came down to Memphis a few times, and we'd spend a few days together. I remember one time he said, 'You know, you can take a good picture of anything'. And I never forgot that. And I firmly believe that he's right. Anything. Somehow. Some way.

Do you have a sense of wanting to leave something behind? Is it important to you that your photographs survive?

Oh... I don't think I can answer that. I just have the assumption that they will. But I don't think I would be bothered if I knew for a fact that they wouldn't. No. The other day I was talking to an editor, who I didn't respect. I said to him, 'I'll tell you what to do. There are three hundred pictures of mine in your possession now. You pick fifty of those that you like the best... and destroy them. And you can destroy the negatives, too'. Because, it goes without saying, they're probably the only ones that are not as good as the others. I was pretty serious about that. It wasn't just a joke. I could have easily lived with that. It went right over his head.... It was really a mean thing to say to anyone...

Do you ever get bored with taking pictures, and put your camera down for a year or two?

Not that long. But I've put it down for a while. I'll still be working, but I won't be taking pictures; I'll be going over the editing or looking at the results from various times. I don't just quit. But if there did come a time when I stopped for good, it really wouldn't worry me a bit. I don't think so. If I didn't have enough work behind me, it might.

You have all this other stuff you're interested in: writing and recording music, and so on. Is taking a good picture the most difficult thing you've done?

...It's not easy.

Issue 52

First published in Issue 52

May 2000

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