That exhibition was organized in 2007 by the Whitney Museum of American Art in association with Haus der Kunst, Munich.
In the new book’s afterword, Almereyda writes that Eggleston’s apparently ordinary realities “can become charged with an air of mystery and menace, a Halloween atmosphere leaking into every season he records, a quality of vulnerability and play converging with a sense of unease, dread, the possibility of mayhem.”
Another angle on Eggleston’s perspective is offered in For Now with Kristine McKenna’s recounting of a 1994 conversation with the photographer. “It’s true that a lot of my pictures have empty centers, and that’s something I probably got from studying Japanese prints and Chinese paintings,” he said.
Also in the book is a piece by Lloyd Fonvielle, who recalls the time in 1971 when Eggleston gave him shelter for a time and showed him his photographs — slide images projected on a wall. “Bill photographed the spaces between the things one would normally find interesting to note,” Fonvielle writes. “In a sense that’s the greatest gift art can give, showing us the things that are hiding in plain sight.”
About Eggleston’s process, Almereyda said, “He’s just a person in the world, you know? He just photographed things that interested him. He’s an open spirit, so he didn’t think anything was unworthy of being photographed. He’s also visually attuned. Like someone who likes music is always humming, his eye is always alert to what can be a picture.”
Eggleston has also been a painter all his life. “I’m doing it all the time,” he told Pasatiempo. “I got started doing abstracts when I was about 5 years old.”
Eggleston never used to work on assignments for magazines. “That would involve taking instructions, like do this or do that, and I’m not accustomed to that and won’t do it,” he said. But his stature now permits doing occasional magazine work without such directives. Images from his most recent photographic foray will appear in a future issue of Vanity Fair. The trip, suggested by the magazine, focused on the renowned Tropicana cabaret in Havana, Cuba, as well as “various other implications than the mundane world!” Eggleston has called his approach “democratic.”
“There’s a self-evident quality to the work; it just declares itself as being unique but also very accessible in that he deals with experiences and reality that’s close at hand,” Almereyda said. “There is a whole school of landscape and still-life painting and a mode of poetry that value everyday objects, so he was simply — sometimes modestly and sometimes ambitiously — following a tradition that wasn’t conspicuous.
“He’s classically trained, and he’s very knowledgeable about the history of art, so it was not a random thing that he was doing when he was breaking boundaries. Compared to Ansel Adams, who was trying to make grand, soaring statements, Bill was being much more humble but equally profound.”
For the new book, Almereyda plumbed the archives of the Eggleston Artistic Trust in Memphis for “the B-sides, the bootlegs, the unreleased tracks” people do not see in the retrospective show William Eggleston: Democratic Camera — Photographs and Video, 1961-2008. pictures in that part of the island, mostly the environs of Havana,” he said.
One of the photographer’s portfolios, made between 1964 and 1974, is titled Los Alamos, but he did not shoot in the New Mexico town. “He used Los Alamos as a metaphor, the idea of a private lab where you do intense research,” Almereyda said. “That’s kind of what he was doing on those road trips where he was exploring and making an inventory of the American cultural landscape.”
Regarding Eggleston’s many imitators, Almereyda tells us in the book that Viva, the Warhol superstar “who was Bill’s companion in New York through much of the ’70s, coined a term for such pictures: Fegglestons.”
“I was never really particularly close to Andy,” Eggleston said during the interview. “I became close with a couple people that were around what he called the Factory and became particularly close with Viva, who was an actress in some of Andy’s films. I just spent the day with her yesterday. I wouldn’t call us ex-lovers, but we love each other very much, and when it’s possible we get together, but I’m thousands of miles away.”
He lives in Memphis. “Chiefly, yes,” Eggleston said, “but also in Paris and around the world.” “William Eggleston: For Now” by Michael Almereyda is published by Twin Palms Publishers, Santa Fe.
Clockwise from top: Winston Eggleston, Oxford, Mississippi, early 1980s; Henry Doggrell and Elsie Burch, early 1980s; Lucia Burch, Memphis, Tennessee, early 1980s; photos courtesy Twin Palms Publishers