The famed photographer on nameless portraits, why he never reveals his inspirations, and the importance of secrecy—in art and in life.
William Eggleston is wearing a Cartier tank watch that’s running two minutes slow. He is at home in Memphis, Tennessee, where he has lived, off and on, ever since he was born there in 1939. He is calm and quiet, and as we begin what becomes a long, winding conversation, he slowly opens up. Although he seldom gives interviews, the ones he does give are infamous for their difficulty. His favorite answer is some variation of, “Yes, I think that is mostly true.” When he pauses, it is for so long that one is briefly tempted to get up and mix a martini. And yet, it is impossible not to stay in rapture of what he has to say, hanging on his every word. These are, after all, the words of a genius.
Over the course of about six decades, Eggleston’s photographs have become known for their sophisticated and unmatched use of color. In 1976, at his first solo exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (the first color photography show at the museum), critics derided his photographs, calling them vulgar and unrefined. Today, however, he is viewed as the master of color photography and some of his earliest works, such as “The Red Ceiling” (1973) and “Untitled (Supermarket Boy with Carts)” (1965), have now become his most famous. They have also become clear influences on the modern, vividly saturated aesthetic of revered film directors like Sofia Coppola and Eggleston’s close friend David Lynch.
And yet, what perhaps stands out the most in Eggleston’s photographs is the sense of anonymity that permeates so many of his photographs. Whether he is shooting a lone boy pushing a shopping cart or a townsperson looking blankly past his lens, there is a sense that the whole world is anonymous. Comparing Eggleston to Edward Hopper, Alexander Nemerov, who wrote the introduction to Eggleston’s latest photography book, The Democratic Forest, found that Eggleston’s photographs go beyond even Hopper’s paintings in depicting the anonymity of America, revealing something “supernatural” in what might otherwise look like emptiness.
In our conversation, Eggleston and I discussed everything from his personal life to his affinity for Bach, to his interest in quantum theory, to his friendship with Lynch. He tended to answer very briefly, but tellingly. He opened up about his next project—inspired by the French Impressionist Pierre Bonnard—and made it clear that even at seventy-eight, he has no intention of stopping. “I haven’t slowed down a bit,” he told me. “I guess I’ll keep doing the same thing for the next 10,000 years.” He keeps his feelings close to the chest. The anonymity that makes his photographs so striking is, unsurprisingly, deeply important to him as well.
Cody Delistraty: Do you photograph people the same way you photograph objects?
William Eggleston: I think so. That’s a hard question to answer, but I don’t see any difference really. But what do you mean exactly? I’m not quite sure.
CD: I mean, when you set up to shoot, do you see a boy pushing a shopping cart in the same way as you see a light bulb?
WE: That’s pretty true. I don’t see much difference.
CD: Is it necessary, therefore, that the people of your photographs remain anonymous?
WE: I’m not quite sure. But I’d say that’s getting close to saying something that’s true.
CD: Tell me more about this sense of anonymity—your late-friend Eudora Welty wrote, in your photographs, “people are present through their absence.”
WE: We were very close friends, and I believe her completely. It means to me exactly the way she put it. I think that quite literally, and I agree with her. I don’t see any reason or anything I could add to that. It makes perfect sense to me.
CD: Alexander Nemerov, wrote, “There’s a difference between ordinary garden-variety blankness and the kind of blankness that resonates with some old supernatural mystery.” Is it the anonymity of the people in your photographs that provides that supernatural mystery?
WE: I think that’s quite exaggerating, but I don’t disagree to his putting it that way. I think his piece was quite fine, quite accurate. I never thought that in my works there’s any blankness whatsoever. They’re quite full of information. The way the entire frame works every square millimeter together and works completely along. If it didn’t, I don’t think I would have taken it.
CD: What makes a photograph iconic?
WE: Initially, I think a good one would be one that I create. I really don’t look much at other photography. A friend of mine, Lee Friedlander — his work I do admire. I think he’s the best one. He works in black and white, but so brilliantly that I can’t ignore it. Don’t want to.
CD: Your style often gets compared to certain film directors, like the Coen Brothers, Sofia Coppola, and David Lynch…
WE: David and I are very close and work a lot together. I’m close to a lot of people that make films. I like Sofia Coppola; she’s very good. I’m very much taken by all of David’s works too. I think David took over where Hitchcock was, in my mind.
CD: Lynch is known for his seemingly anonymous towns infused with mystery. Did he get that from you?
WE: Well — he and I both agree that we don’t steal from each other. I don’t know of any examples that come right to mind, but I can see, from time to time, different frames in his films that I think, we must have exchanged our ideas. It’s not that I see a frame of his that is trying to copy something I do. It’s just David. We exchange ideas all the time.
CD: When did you first feel the artistic impulse?
WE: When I was a teenager, in prep school, a close friend advised me to be interested in photography. I took the advice and obtained a camera and started photographing. That was that.
CD: What was the camera?
WE: It was a Leica.
CD: When you started with color photography in the 1960s, did you think of it as less sophisticated than black-and-white, in going with the theory of the time? Or did you always see its potential?
WE: I think I’ve always thought it was quite sophisticated or could be and still is. I never regret it. I always felt I was seeing in color anyway. Then the color film was effective, so I started using only color, which I do now.
CD: When you go out and shoot, do you still adhere to what the German curator Thomas Weski termed, “snapshot style” — that is, not taking a photo twice?
WE: I don’t believe that term.
WE: Because “snapshot style” — that’s not a term I use, ever. A good photograph is composed of so many elements that, most all, work together. The two words “snapshot style” don’t begin to even touch the bottom of what constitutes a really successful picture.
CD: You’ve called it “nonsense” before. Is there any use in analyzing the composition of your photographs?
WE: Best I can put it would be when you say, “analyzing,” I don’t really do that in words. I don’t think that it’s very sensible of a thing. You have to look at it. I don’t know any way to talk, much less write about my works.
CD: Why do you think your photographs have become so admired?
WE: I didn’t have anything to do with it — that’s what I think. I don’t think I changed anything. I strive to sort of make it evident that times change. Time goes by. I can’t stop that. I really never know what’s going to happen the next day, I must say.
CD: Do you shoot differently now than you did earlier in your career?
WE: I don’t see any difference really. Pictures I took today or yesterday or twenty years ago or thirty, I think they pretty much reflect my way of thinking, and I don’t think that is something that one should expect to change.
CD: You’ve said that the people you feel closest to are Stephen Hawking, your late-friend Carl Sagan, and Albert Einstein. Why do you feel close to them?
WE: Frankly, quantum theory is very much a part of everyday life, whether it’s in dramatic arts, or whether it’s in music. That goes for everything else in the world. Quantum is about everything out there and in there. I think they’re right.
CD: When did your interest in quantum theory begin?
WE: In childhood. It wasn’t all that thought out then, but I was very much interested in physics and science. Quantum came along, and I don’t disagree with the theories a bit.
CD: Is your photography doing the artistic analog of what they’re doing?
WE: I think so, yes. I just think that. I can’t explain how. I don’t know how to put it into words.
CD: Why is Bach your favorite composer?
WE: Amazingly, to me, Bach was able to compose this music as if he had a thorough knowledge of quantum and physics. Of course, that was hundreds of years ago. Then, let’s say, you have studied his scores then listen to the music and, amazingly, even while it is so in obeyance with the laws of physics and nature, at the same time, it so beautiful to listen to, up late, which I do. I’m amazed that he was able to do both things at once. I still think he may be the only composer that achieves that.
CD: He combined quantum theory and aural beauty?
CD: What is it that makes an artistic genius?
WE: I don’t know. I wish I did. There are too many theories to really spend time thinking about it. I don’t get anywhere when I try.
CD: Do you think you’ll continue to work forever?
WE: I certainly do. I haven’t slowed down a bit. I guess I’ll keep doing the same thing for the next 10,000 years.
CD: What does “work” look like for you?
WE: I never can predict that, to be honest. The pleasure is looking at the finished image. I must say, I study my own works intensely, so I know what is in each one and really don’t much try to talk to other people about what I see in these images. When I begin to think about expressing something like that, I run out of words. I really don’t think, possibly ever, about things like that. Whatever that means.
CD: Why did you leave Gagosian for David Zwirner late last year?
WE: Not any one particular reason. I basically think Gagosian was… I don’t know. It’s hard to assess. Anyhow, we’re still really good friends. David just was really generous and excited that I should work with him, and I said, “That’s fine.” So I’m quite happy with doing it right now.
CD: Is there anything that’s written about you or your photographic style that deserves clearing up?
WE: A lot of things I’ve read I don’t agree with if that’s what you’re striving toward. But not right on the top of my mind. There’s so many different things I do not agree with that I’ve read, but I can’t bring to mind any of those things. I wouldn’t pay much attention to them when I was reading them; so they didn’t really sink in much.
CD: What’s next for you?
WE: I’m in the middle of a project right now. I’m using a camera made by Hasselblad that takes a very long, narrow frame. Let’s say, twenty-four by seventy millimeters in dimensions — the negative. The thing could be any size really. Right now they’re all verticals. I’m really into this project. I think it’s coming along just as I thought it would.
CD: Is there a subject matter or theme of this new project?
WE: I was heavily influenced, or inspired rather, by discovering a lot of the vertical paintings by the French painter, Bonnard. You must know who I mean?
CD: I do. I live in Paris. He’s wonderful.
WE: That’s good. Of course, in this age, the d’Orsay has a great collection of Bonnard.
CD: Your upcoming work is inspired by Bonnard then?
WE: Yeah, I would say inspired — that is probably the best word I can think to use.
A version of this interview first appeared in Mastermind magazine. Slideshow photos courtesy of Eggleston Artistic Trust, via David Zwirner Gallery. Principle photo by Jody Rogac for It’s Nice That (http://www.jodyrogac.com)