It’s logical that William Eggleston should be a man of few words. The 72-year-old speaks in a laconic southern drawl, and more often than not (in our interview at least) he says very little; though he often mumbles in agreement, “You said it.” That’s not to say he isn’t charming—when I met with him he was wearing a sharp suit and he bowed when we were introduced—it’s that perhaps he thinks it’s all been said before. After all, if a picture speaks a thousand words, then he’s certainly covered his bases.
Eggleston’s famous point-and-shoot approach to photography— “I just walk by and take the picture, very quickly”—has produced a prodigious amount of work. His latest book release, a collector’s trilogy titled Chromes (out December 16 through Steidl) showcases 364 images, selected from a catalogue of thousands of transparencies that are housed in the Eggleston Artistic Trust in Memphis, where he lives. Travelling to Memphis is the only sure way to secure an interview with him nowadays, but he made a rare trip to Paris Photo in November, where I sat down with him.
Chromes documents a very important era of Eggleston’s career: a time from 1969 to 1974 when he started experimenting with composition and color film. “The main film I used is called Kodachromes, which is why the book is called Chromes,” he says. “At that time the negative (well, it was later improved tremendously) but at that time the best color was with chromes, not negatives.” Most of these images have never been seen before.
Although Eggleston initially shot on black and white film, it was this work in color — oversaturated color — that has defined his career. In the late 1960s, the dye-transfer process he used to achieve such vividness in his images was primarily reserved for advertising and fashion photography, not art. Eggleston was one of the first to challenge this idea, and it resulted in his ++iconoclastic exhibition of color photographs++ (link= http://www.egglestontrust.com/moma76.html) at MOMA in 1976. The exhibition polarized critics at the time.
Much like most of Eggleston’s work, Chromes acts as a record of a particular place and time: the road signs, the cars, the gas stations, and the people, are all part of a chapter in American history, particularly that of the south. Eggleston insists, however, that being a documentarian was never his intention. “[I just photograph] whatever’s there … It’s difficult for me to tell the difference between a picture taken many years back and one taken yesterday, the style is so similar.” Looking through some of the images in Chromes he remarks, “I can’t remember where or when. I’m sure I took it though.” I point to naked man sitting on a couch in one photograph and ask who he is. “If that’s the man I think it is, he is a very close friend. It’s not [taken] in his house [though] it’s somewhere else. I don’t know why he has no clothes on, but he doesn’t,” he says laughing.
As a child, Eggleston was always interested in the arts, particularly painting and music. He didn’t pick up a camera, though, until he was in university. “I had this friend that I went to boarding school—prep school—with who was always interested in photography. We both went from there as freshman into Vanderbilt University in Nashville, and once we arrived he talked me into buying a camera … that was beginning.”
“There was no art department at Vanderbilt and really nowhere photography was taught; at least the kind of photography I wanted to do. One could study—there were a few schools—one could study fashion photography or advertising. Neither interested me.”
Eggleston had to teach himself and he remembers Henri Cartier-Bresson’s book, The Decisive Moment, being a starting point for inspiration. “I think it was the only book of quite serious photography. There were many photo books around they were pretty bad.”
Unique in his approach to composition, many of Eggleston’s pictures have “empty centers,” as he often works with the negative spaces around his subject. He focuses his lens on the ordinary, even the mundane, moments in life: a stocked pantry cupboard, a couple eating in a diner, an empty gas station. Eggleston sees beauty where others see banality.
In this he is like another great American artist, Andy Warhol. Both were fascinated with everyday objects and created iconic American imagery. Eggleston knew Warhol well, although he’s adamant they did not influence each other. “Andy and I were both seeing the same things. You can’t go anywhere without seeing a sign—maybe Coca-Cola, maybe something else—but we saw them in different ways.”