William Eggleston: The Father of Modern Color Photography

The acclaimed pioneer in color photography has been teaching us how to see the world his way for decades, and once you fall under his spell, it’s for keeps.

For decades, William Eggleston has been regarded as one of photography’s most uncommonly talented practitioners. Hailed as the father of modern color photography, he is also a gifted painter and graphic artist, and a self-taught whiz as a pianist and a composer. For that matter, he can take a shotgun apart and put it back together as easily as he designs and builds his own stereo speakers. So it is hardly surprising that he is also a mean hand with an epigram.

His most famous quote is the dazzling battle cry, “I am at war with the obvious.”

Explaining Elvis, his Memphis neighbor, he once said, “He just fit that hole that there never was a hero for.”

But even in casual conversation, he is quite capable of bringing you up short. On a recent afternoon in New York City, he spent a few seconds pondering the proposition that in many ways he had less in common with other photographers than he did with painters and filmmakers. Then, in a soft, introspective drawl, he said, “I have very little in common with other photographers. If anything.”

That claim requires at least a little qualifying. First, in terms of accomplishment if not intent, Eggleston has much in common with the greatest photographers, from Evans to Frank to Arbus to Friedlander. Second, he is perhaps the most influential photographer of his time, if, say, Instagram is any measure. On a daily basis, my feed is packed with pictures taken by photographers under his spell.

That, however, really is only qualification, not contradiction. When it comes to how he deploys his Leica, Eggleston stands alone. His singular pictures do not resemble anyone else’s, and no matter how hard people try, he is not really imitable.

In Michael Almereyda’s brilliant and affectionate documentary William Eggleston in the Real World, to which I return repeatedly like some furtive stalker, there is a scene where the camera follows Eggleston as he prowls through a deserted and dilapidated old house. Several times, as he snaps a picture, the film freeze frames and shows you what he took. At first, it seems that the film is saying, Look, this is how he does it. But then you realize that in fact it is saying almost the opposite, something like, ‘Look, no matter how closely you stand at his elbow, you cannot for the life of you understand how he got that image from that place.’ The scene does not dispel the mystery of his talent. It enhances it.

Explaining precisely why that is true is tough. As he has insisted in many interviews, words and visual images are oil and water. “They don’t like each other,” he says. That is, words and pictures do very different things, and if you could explain a picture in words, there would be no need to take it. Or, as John Szarkowski, the late, great MOMA photography curator once put it so indelibly, “in these photographs form and content are indistinguishable—which is to say that the pictures mean precisely what they appear to mean. Attempting to translate these appearances into words is surely a fool’s errand, in the pursuit of which no two fools would choose the same unsatisfactory words.”

Photo Gallery: View More of Eggleston’s Work

What can be said is this: Eggleston does not simply compose in color; he composes with color. “If you take the color out of the photographs,” he once observed, “they tend to fall apart.” Which is to say, color is not merely applied to a composition like a coat of paint. It is the composition.

Eggleston was in New York during the last week in October for the opening of a new exhibition of his work at the Zwirner gallery that runs through December 17. All of the nearly 50 images in the show were taken in the ’80s as part of a mammoth series called The Democratic Forest, which in its entirety includes some 12,000 images. But in the Zwirner show, for the first time, many of the images have been reproduced on a giant scale, some of them five feet across. Staring at them on opening night (and it is a measure of how Eggleston is idolized, particularly by the young, that hundreds of people braved a truly filthy rain to attend the opening), I thought, when you make a picture that big, there is no room for error, no place for a photographer to hide. And in this case, no need. You could put these pictures on a billboard, and they would lose none of their integrity.

Of course, no little part of Eggleston’s reputation derives from his character, which with volatile effect combines charm, rakishness, and elegance (the accent may be from Memphis, where he’s lived most of his life, but the tailored clothes are straight from Savile Row). And while he may now be 77, and while time may have dimmed his hearing and slowed his step, it has not extinguished his appetites nor curbed his often wayward verve. In the two hours I spent with him, he downed four double vodkas while putting a serious dent in a pack of American Spirits without noticeable effect, and at the Aperture Foundation benefit in his honor on October 24, he left before he could be honored from the stage.

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Interviewing him feels a little like playing hooky. You know that somewhere in there, behind the habitual black slacks, white Oxford shirt, and red dotted bow tie that’s never known a knot, there is the boy who always got you into trouble and never caught the blame. With the handsome man’s awareness that he is always being watched, he speaks softly, thoughtfully, his impossibly long fingers sculpting pauses in the air like a magician producing doves from a scarf. Most of the time when he speaks, he stares into space, as though the answer were written on the ceiling. Then, suddenly, out of the smoke and murmuring, he’ll whip around and fix you with a gaze so bald, so knowing, but at the same time so impenetrable, that you know, too, that here is a man who, no matter how much he is surrounded by loving family and friends, will always preside over a kingdom of one.

“I feel close to Faulkner,” he said. “Like Bach, he was spurned at home.” He paused, frowned, then completed his thought: “I’m like Mr. Faulkner. I’m kind of in my own world. I don’t know if I’m in the South or not.”

About one thing he was adamant: Apart from a lot of his subject matter, there is nothing particularly Southern about his work. “Not a bit of it. I never think of it as Southern.” For that matter, he doesn’t even think about it in exclusively photographic terms. “Recently I was talking to an old friend and said that looking over a great body of my work was like looking at a body of literature.”

This makes sense, for while the thousands of images he’s created may not add up to any sort of linear narrative, they collectively provide a variegated portrait of the world in our time. And there is movement: in the first collection he published, William Eggleston’s Guide, the catalog to the infamous 1976 one-man show at the Museum of Modern Art—MOMA’s first color photography show and one reviled by critics who weren’t ready for any color in art photography, much less for Eggleston—the pictures often, if not always, revolve around a central image in the center of the frame. By the time he published the first version of The Democratic Forest in 1989, the pictures had become much more diffuse—your eye does not know where to go first. But that’s the point, the democracy of Eggleston’s vision: everything has weight, and any given photograph succeeds as a whole, as the sum of its components, or not at all. He’s asking you to collaborate, to see what got him excited enough to take the picture, to locate the extraordinary within the ordinary. “I would call this work [in The Democratic Forest] a lot more painterly,” he said.

Reasonably garrulous about almost any subject except his own work, he sounded less like a man taking a victory lap (in recent months, besides the Aperture lifetime achievement award and the Zwirner show, he was also celebrated with a major one-man show at the National Portrait Gallery in London and another at the University of Mississippi) and more like someone keenly aware that he is running out of time. You can be sure that there is no room left in his allotted span for fools or false modesty.

He despises television. “I never watch it,” he said. “It’s a drug I can do without. It’s infantile. Last night there was a TV in the taxi! Most boring thing I’ve ever seen.” He is not much kinder about people whose esthetic vision he considers stunted. When the conversation turns to Edward Hopper, he shakes his head at those who think the painter’s work is about loneliness. “I never felt that way,” he says. It’s about aloneness maybe, and light, but not loneliness. “I feel pity for them,” he said. “They’re missing something.”

For his heroes, though, artists like Faulkner and Bach, he has the enthusiasm of a child on Christmas morning. Bach especially has a place in his heart. “One thing I love about the great man,” he said, “is that he never repeated himself. He borrowed from himself, but that’s all right if you’re borrowing something worth borrowing.”

He might, of course, have been talking about himself. He has few rules to govern his method, but those he has he obeys stringently. He never moves anything to make a picture better, “not so much as a leaf.” He never takes more than one shot of any subject. And he won’t shoot after he’s had a drink.

Doesn’t the world get more cramped, though, when it comes to subject matter, when you’ve taken so many pictures and refuse to double back on your path? No, he said, because the changing world works in his favor. “I’m thankful that it’s changing,” he said. “Makes it more interesting as time goes by.”

He is still compelled to photograph, he says, but is it still fun? “I wouldn’t do it if it weren’t fun,” he says, “whatever fun is. I’ve never been sure.” And there it is, that beguiling twinkle in those depthless eyes that let’s you know you’re being kidded a little.

He still plays the piano, “night and day,” and continues to compose, although he won’t call it composing but merely improvisation, because “I never write anything down.”

So how would he like to be remembered? This time the pause is even longer than usual, with time out in the middle to set fire to another cigarette. Then he says, “I think I can answer pretty easily: as an artist who understood and revered the rules of making objects in the graphic arts that are known as fine art.”

Since, in most imaginable ways, he’s already gotten that wish, is there anything else left for him to do? “I’d like to find the next universe.” He smiles. “There must be others.”

And in the meantime?

“One has to keep looking … intelligently … hopefully.”

To see more of Eggleston’s work, click here.