Soaking Up the Local Color : William Eggleston brought color photography into the art world. Now he brings his eye for unlikely beauty to L.A.

<i> Kristine McKenna writes about art and other subjects for The Times</i>

People who know about such things pretty much agree that William Eggleston was the first artist to confer legitimacy on color photography, and that he continues to be among its most brilliant practitioners.

Despite that, Eggleston’s critically acclaimed art has been all but upstaged by his personal life; when dispatched to write about the 54-year-old artist, journalists can’t resist the impulse to shift the focus from his art to the man himself--and this is understandable. Characters as extravagantly flamboyant as Eggleston don’t come down the pike too often.

Arriving in Los Angeles from his home in Memphis, Tenn., to shoot a series of pictures of Hollywood Boulevard for the New York literary quarterly Grand Street, he gets off the plane dressed in hunting boots, khaki pants, an impeccable white shirt and a bow tie and toting a briefcase full of cameras. A descendant of the planter aristocracy of the Mississippi Delta, Eggleston is a dandy, a gentleman of the old school, a connoisseur of tobacco, music, art, firearms, tailors and cobblers.


He’s also a notorious rogue with a reputation for outrageous behavior, substance abuse and complicated romantic liaisons that seem to accompany his art everywhere it’s shown.


This is unfortunate, as Eggleston’s achievement as an artist is considerable. His official debut was in 1976 with a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. As the first significant show of color photography in a major art museum, the wildly controversial exhibition was greeted with catcalls at the time (the New York Times dismissed it as “the most hated show of the year”), but today it is credited with ushering photography into a whole new era.

Although no less an authority than America’s great poet of black-and-white photography, Walker Evans, had decreed that “color photography is vulgar,” Eggleston made that belief old hat and introduced a new approach to photography revolving around a remarkably confident naturalism. As prolific as he is original, Eggleston is a staggeringly productive artist whose body of work numbers well upward of 50,000 images, who has published four books and 10 limited-edition portfolios and who has exhibited around the world.

“I try to photograph democratically,” Eggleston says of his work, by which he means that he considers everything worthy of his attention. This has led to singular pictures of a light bulb, a ditch, a Sunday dinner, a patch of peeling paint.

Marked by an odd, abrupt approach to cropping, a curious attention to floors and ceilings, super-saturated colors and a penchant for compositions in which the action is along the borders and the center is empty, Eggleston’s work places the familiar and the commonplace on equal footing with the rare and refined. Wide open to life in all its permutations, he refrains from organizing the things of the world into the hierarchy of value we normally ascribe to them.

Because Eggleston’s first body of work to garner attention focused on his immediate environs in the South, he’s often described as a Southern photographer, but that tag falls far short of the mark. He has, in fact, photographed locations around the world, been the set photographer on several films (“True Stories” and “Annie,” to name two) and made videos. That most people are unaware of this may be a result of the fact that Eggleston has always treated his career with marked indifference. Recently signed to the prestigious Robert Miller Gallery in New York, he had a well-received show there last fall, but he has no gallery representation in Los Angeles, nor does he seem remotely concerned about such things.



Spending a day with Eggleston is a highly entertaining bit of business. A soft-spoken man who talks about himself with uncommon candor, Eggleston solemnly informs that “I have a bad problem with alcohol” five minutes into an interview in his Hollywood hotel room. Seemingly unafflicted with feelings of remorse or judgment, he simply reports the facts as he sees them in a slow Southern drawl. In the habit of inviting virtual strangers to come along to wherever he happens to be going next, he is equally generous with his work, much of which he has given away.

Eggleston has dozens of friends in Los Angeles, but when a visitor inquires as to whether there is anything he hopes to do while he’s here, he politely replies, “Not particularly.”

When it is suggested later over lunch at Musso & Frank that perhaps he’d like to stroll down Hollywood Boulevard, a pained expression flickers across his face and he asks, “How far were you thinking?”

A man who proudly claims that he’s never done a minute of exercise in his life, Eggleston was obviously born to spend endless hours planted in a chair, lighting one cigarette after the next and nudging along rambling chats about everything under the sun. He has a fascinating conversational style too; you could drive a truck through the pauses between words when he speaks, and he’s prone to lapsing into protracted periods of stony silence.

Eggleston was born in Memphis in 1939, the eldest of three children, and grew up on a cotton farm in Sumner, Miss., a small town two hours south of Memphis.

“I guess you could say my childhood was idyllic,” he recalls. “The sharecropping system was still in force, and we were the privileged class. My parents had a great respect for art, and two of the first things given to me as a child by my mother, who was a brilliant woman, were books on Rouault and De Chirico. My parents always encouraged my interest in art, even though they thought a career as an artist was crazy. They figured I could never make a living at it.”


The reluctance to push Eggleston into a career in the visual arts was partly due to the fact that he was a musical prodigy as a child. A self-taught pianist capable of fluid improvisations on a classical repertoire, Eggleston continues to be as devoted to music as he is to photography. (He is also a gifted audiophile who builds his own stereo speakers.)

“When I was growing up it was thought I’d be a concert pianist because I could play anything by ear, but I never did take up the discipline,” he says. “A musician has to give his entire life to his work, and I wasn’t prepared to do that. I’ve continued to work on music throughout my life though, and the only reason I’ve never done anything public with it is because I have enough on my hands trying to get people to understand my photographs.” (Eggleston is, in fact, preparing to release a CD of some of his compositions later this year.)


A t this point the interview is interrupted by a phone call from a friend in Memphis, calling to inform him that that day’s local paper includes a story about a friend of Eggleston’s who is about to sue him. Eggleston is highly amused by news of the lawsuit, which revolves around some missing photographs that he says are in the possession of his wife.

“I wish them luck getting those pictures from Rosa,” says Eggleston, who by his count has been in jail maybe a dozen times for assorted misdemeanors.

Coincidentally or not, the day before coming to Los Angeles he had been in Mississippi at a trial involving rightful ownership of a car. Laws--state, federal or any other kind you can think of--don’t seem to make much of an impression on him, and this attitude takes on a comical edge in Eggleston, who is in all other ways a well-bred aristocrat.

Returning to his story, Eggleston talks a bit about his career as a student, which was, as might be expected, rather rocky. Sent at age 15 to an austere private school where he was miserable, he went on to brief stints at two Southern universities, then wound up spending five years at the University of Mississippi in Oxford.


“I was studying painting, and the painter I liked the most during that period was Franz Kline--who works in black and white,” he says with a laugh. “I also liked De Kooning and Pollock. Abstract Expressionism was the dominant thing when I was coming of age as an artist, and I went to New York and looked at a lot of that stuff. I was painting abstractions myself at the time, and although most people don’t know this, I’ve never stopped painting.

“I never got a degree,” he adds, “because I couldn’t see any sense in taking tests. I didn’t mind going to classes, but taking a test? For whom? And what would I do with a damn degree anyway? Because I refused to take tests I had to talk the dean into letting me back into school every year, and that was hard because they didn’t think I was particularly talented. At the time I was doing the groundwork for photography and photography was barely even taught then, much less considered an art form.”

When one comments that his rebellious streak obviously surfaced fairly early on, Eggleston looks surprised and demurely insists: “I never been that wild.”

Before heading off to college, Eggleston met his wife, Rosa Dosset, the daughter of a family that owned thousands of acres in the delta. He was 17 and she was 13 when they met, and they’ve been together, more or less, ever since. The mother of Eggleston’s three grown children--Bill Jr., Winston and Andra--Rosa accepted long ago that her husband would always have other women in his life. Eggleston himself is so open and cheerfully unapologetic about his unorthodox lifestyle that he almost makes it seem normal.

Eggleston had already begun to toy with photography by the time he met Rosa, but he had yet to realize its full potential as a creative vehicle.

“When I was 10 I got a Brownie camera and took some pictures of my dog, but they weren’t very good and I was completely disenchanted with the idea of taking pictures,” he recalls. “I continued to hate it until the late ‘50s, when a friend in boarding school made me buy a camera, and then I began to get it. Then I saw a copy of Cartier-Bresson’s book ‘The Decisive Moment,’ and I really got excited about taking pictures.”



Working in black and white, Eggleston polished his technical skills throughout the early ‘60s, taking pictures clearly indebted to Cartier-Bresson. In the late ‘60s, however, a new idea began to coalesce in his mind.

“I don’t see many movies, but there were a few films where the color was used brilliantly and they made a big impression on me--Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘North by Northwest,’ and ‘Bonnie and Clyde,’ are the two I’m thinking of in particular,” he says. “Something clicked in me when I saw those films--maybe it was just one minute out of the whole movie.

“During the same period that I was thinking about those films, I had a friend who had a job working nights at a photography lab where they processed snapshots and I’d go visit him because we were both night owls,” he continues. “I started looking at these pictures coming out--they’d come out in a long ribbon--and though most of them were accidents, some of them were absolutely beautiful, and I started spending all night looking at this ribbon of pictures.

“I was particularly struck by a picture of a guy who worked for a grocery store, pushing a cart out in the late-afternoon sun--that one really stuck in my mind. I started daydreaming about taking a particular kind of picture, because I figured if amateurs working with cheap cameras could do this, I could use good cameras and really come up with something.

“I’d already become proficient in black and white; I was a good technician, and I had a natural talent for organizing colors--not putting all the reds in one corner, for instance. That was probably because I’d studied painting--essentially what I was doing was applying intelligent painting theory to color photography.”

In 1969, Eggleston showed his black-and-white work to John Szarkowski, then the director of the department of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, and succeeded in selling one print to the museum. When he returned two years later with his color work, however, he got a lot more from Szarkowski, who began a five-year struggle to persuade MOMA to mount an in-depth exhibition of the artist’s work.


In 1973 while teaching photography at Harvard, Eggleston adopted a method usually used only in advertising to print his photographs, which invested the work with intensely saturated color. This quality of color has come to be the central earmark of his art, and the first exhibition of work made using this printing method went up at MOMA in 1976. The response it elicited was hardly what the artist and curator had hoped for.

“People just hit the roof, which surprised me because the work was in such a hallowed institution,” Eggleston recalls. “Everybody screamed, ‘This isn’t art! Why is this in a museum?’

“I’d intentionally constructed the pictures to make them look like ordinary snapshots anyone could’ve taken, and a lot of that had to do with the subject matter--a picture of a shopping center parking lot, for instance. Because the pictures looked so simple, a lot of people didn’t notice that the color and form were worked out, that the content came and went where it ought to--that they were more than casual pictures.”


Despite all the squawking, the show launched Eggleston’s career, and today his prints sell for as much as $20,000. Though the price of his work has gone up steadily for the past 18 years, the way he works hasn’t changed at all. Eggleston always has a camera close at hand, and he shoots pictures--with amazing discretion--everywhere he goes.

At a lunch held in his honor at a Hollywood gallery, he takes pictures at the table without a word to his dining companions about what he’s doing--Eggleston wouldn’t dream of instructing anyone to perform for his camera. At various points during the meal he silently wanders off to take pictures in the street and in the yard, and later, riding back to his hotel, he shoots pictures through the car window.

Taking pictures seems to be like breathing for Eggleston--in fact, he’s been quoted on several occasions as claiming that he no longer even needs to look through the viewfinder when he works. He says that quote isn’t entirely accurate, however.


“People say I ‘shoot from the hip,’ but that’s not really how I work,” he says. “What happens is, when I look at something it registers on my mind so clearly that I can be loose when I shoot the picture.

“I always just take one picture of something, and I’ve never staged a photograph in my life and never needed to--there are pictures everywhere. If I’m ever in a place I think is impossible to photograph, I remember something (photographer) Garry Winogrand told me--he said, ‘Bill, you can take a good picture of anything,’ and that’s always stuck.”

Eggleston may not stage his pictures, but he does agree that a few motifs recur in his work.

“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 says. “A lot of those things are constructed so that everything is in the borders and there really won’t be a center--maybe just a little wisp or something. Western culture is hooked on the idea of the main thing being smack dab in the middle because people are so stupid. Most people look at a picture and if they don’t see something recognizable in the middle, they move on to something else.”

Many critics see Eggleston’s work as a record of an America that’s fast disappearing, but he says, “That’s not something I’m conscious of. When I was taking the pictures those critics are probably referring to, as far as I knew those things were there for good. I didn’t know that five years later this incredible Coke sign would be replaced by a 7-Eleven--that never dawned on me, because up until the ‘60s, the South looked pretty much as it had during the Depression. But from the ‘60s on it became a different ballgame, and it’s unrecognizable today from what it was. You been to the South lately? It’s not interesting bad like L.A.--it just looks like a bunch of idiots put the place together.”

The interpretation that really puzzles Eggleston, however, is the fact that critics usually describe his work as romantic.


“I’ve never understood why people say that, because I don’t romanticize the world,” he says. “If you could turn back time and look at a place as it was when I photographed it, I think the picture and the place would look pretty much the same. I’ve never felt the need to enhance the world in my pictures, because the world is spectacular enough as it is.”*