A Talk With: William Eggleston

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I swung down to Memphis, Tenn. last week to spend some time with the great American photographer William Eggleston. A big traveling retrospective of his work opens on Nov. 7 at the Whitney Museum in New York. As usual I’ll split this conversation into several posts.

LACAYO: You were born in 1939. When your father went off to the Pacific in World War II, you and your mother moved in with her parents, who had a cotton plantation in the Mississippi delta. But your grandfather was also a judge in Sumner, Miss., about 15 miles away, and kept a house there. So did you mostly grow up in the house in town?

EGGLESTON: We had two houses. One was the plantation. But my mother stayed at the Sumner house, so I considered that little tiny town my place. Life in the country was sort of remote. It was lonely — the nearest neighbor was fifteen miles. There was nothing in every direction but cotton fields.

LACAYO: Were you an indoors kind of a kid?

EGGLESTON: I had to be — I had asthma. Until I was about eight or ten, then suddenly it went away forever. Back then there was nothing they could do for it. We had a big oxygen tank in my room. I would spend about twenty minutes a day inhaling oxygen and that seemed to help. It was severe for years, so I was pretty much restricted to being an indoor person. Playing any kind of sports or just running around the block, I would get sick and sweaty.

LACAYO: And you played piano since childhood. Can you read music?

EGGLESTON: I can. I don’t like reading music. It’s like learning a language. You can’t read music proficiently overnight. It takes time, it’s boring work.

LACAYO: I know you also draw all the time, abstract drawings in color. You started to draw as a kid?

EGGLESTON: And even as a kid the drawings I did were abstract. They weren’t pictures of people or things, they were mostly shapes.

LACAYO: Do you find as you’ve gotten older that your photography is being overtaken by the drawing, the way it happened with Cartier-Bresson? In his later years he stopped taking pictures and returned to painting full time.

EGGLESTON: Oh no. They’re completely separate for me.

LACAYO: You attended a few colleges but never graduated. But when you were at your first school, Vanderbilt, a friend urged you to get a camera and start taking pictures, which you did. At what point did you start to think, I’m not a painter, I’m a photographer?

EGGLESTON: It never crossed my mind. I first entered Vanderbilt as a freshman and for several years before that I had been to a boarding school. My closest friend there shared my interest in music and electronics. Photography completely disinterested me. Even then he would urge me to get a camera. But it wasn’t until we were both at Vanderbilt that he marched me down to the premiere camera store in Nashville and I bought a camera with a view finder. This was in the days before single lens reflex.

LACAYO: So if somebody hadn’t come along and pushed you into photography you might never have found your way there?

EGGLESTON: I give him all credit. Because the very day I bought the camera I loaded it up and went to Centennial Park where they have this big reproduction of the Parthenon. I took some color pictures of it and had them developed as slides. And I was astonished at how perfectly they came up. From that moment on photography was it for me. Which was reflected in my lack of attendance at other classes.