“I do have a personal discipline of only taking one picture of one thing, not two,” Eggleston says. “If I’d take more than one, I’d get so confused later trying to figure out which is the best.”
Eggleston got his first camera at 18. At the time, he “knew nothing about photography”, he recalls in The Colourful Mr Eggleston, part of BBC’s Imagine series hosted by Alan Yentob. Known for being an “elusive and shy” character, Eggleston comes across as a man of few words with a passion for the unconventional – he hung out with Warhol’s factory crowd and made a 77-minute free-form video, Stranded in Canton which has been restored and reformed as a book and DVD published by Twin Palms (2008).
“People often ask what I’m photographing,” he says in his Southern drawl. (Pause) “It’s a hard question to answer.” (Pause) “And the best I’ve come up with is just to say, ‘Life today’.”(Pause for at least five seconds) “I don’t know whether they believe me or not, or what they it means… I don’t know what to say but, ‘It’s today’.”
Eggleston, known as Bill to his family and friends and who his mother described as both “brilliant and strange”, started out working in black and white, taking photographs in and around his home city of Memphis, Tennessee. He was not interested in photojournalism, although he discovered, through a friend, the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson (The Decisive Moment), who he admired for his great composition and his “obvious knowledge of painting – there’s a lot of Degas”. But it’s what he photographed and the way he photographed the ‘unspectacular’, the ‘banal’ and ‘everyday’ that was groundbreaking. Plus he helped propel colour into the world of art photography, which had previously been used mostly in fashion and advertising photography, and was in contrast to the large format black and white landscapes of Ansel Adams and Edward Weston which were dominating the art market.
Eggleston’s personal vision, his use of the colour dye transfer photographic process, and his unconventional approach – both in a personal and professional capacity – flung wide the rigid doors of art photography and helped him become, as photographer Martin Parr comments “a photographer’s photographer”. The initial response to his debut show, Eggleston’s Guide held at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1976, and curated by John Szarkowski, failed to impress many art critics. And not everything written by the press is accurate, as Peter Galassi (Curator of Photography at MoMA) says in a Vanity Fair article William Egglestone’s Democratic Camera by Rose Meacham “The work in the 1976 show is a really great body of work. But people, especially the press, like to mythologize. It was not the first color show at MoMA. It was not John Szarkowski’s first color show. The importance of the work is its artistic importance. It’s not a box checked off on a list of historical firsts. Eggleston should be admired for the authentic aesthetic importance of his work.”
Watching Eggleston at work is a treat. More than once interviewees, including Juergen Teller and David Lynch, describe his ‘light’ and ‘gentle’ way of working. It’s incredible to watch him shoot; he is constantly looking, then in a moment, he raises his camera to his eye – he has an impressive collection of Leica and Canon cameras – shoots a frame and proceeds in what appears to be one continuous movement. “Pop”, Pop”, Pop”, says Lynch miming the firing of a shutter to indicate the economy and fluidity with which Eggleston photographed the director.
A retrospective William Eggleston Democratic Camera Photographs and Video 1961-2008 is touring the States if you can’t make the shows, you can catch him online A Talk With: William Eggleston