The Mythologies of William Eggleston

Untitled, 1970 (self-portrait), William Eggleston

Perhaps the best moment of Michael Almereyda’s film William Eggleston in the Real World comes at the very end, between the credits, when we see Eggleston the morning after a hard night (and they pretty much all seem to be hard nights for Eggleston), sitting with his lady friend Leigh Haizlip, as they listen to the haunting Roy Orbison song that gives the film its title.[i] She suddenly remarks how lucky they are to be alive at a time when they can, among other things, enjoy Roy Orbison, rather than in, say, the Middle Ages, when presumably such amenities wouldn’t be available. And, the viewer might well add, when we wouldn’t have been able to experience the photography of William Eggleston either. It’s a strange and rather touching interlude in what is an otherwise somewhat uneven film, but one that in many ways exemplifies the difficulties that exist in approaching Eggleston and his work. Not least of these is the magnetic pull of a near-mythic persona, which creates a real, though perhaps not inevitable tension between critical appraisal and mere biographical reminiscence. This too often shades off into a kind hagiography that clouds our understanding of his achievements. What I want to address here are some of the predominant ways that we tend to think Eggleston as an artist and to consider why these depictions operate in the way that they do.

In fact, Almereyda starts out quite well, trailing Eggleston as he wanders around a small town variously looking at things and taking pictures, wrapped in a large parka. The footage is wobbly and even a little amateurish, as Almereyda warbles on over the top of it, but the effect is oddly mesmerising and it’s clear that the director has a genuine fascination with his subject, as well as no little affection. I might be in the minority on this, but if the rest of the film had continued in the same vein, following the largely monosyllabic Eggleston around, accompanied by his patient son Winston, as he made pictures and charmed the occasional waitress, I would have happily watched it. However, Almereyda probably assumed, no doubt rightly, that this wouldn’t make for much of a documentary, and so he felt obliged to try and ‘reveal’ something about his subject, though what that might be seems very much unresolved by the end of the film. In common with almost every other account of Eggleston, what chiefly emerges is a portrait of a difficult, if remarkable individual who has, almost as an afterthought, and despite being a serious alcoholic living what is invariably described as a ‘turbulent’ personal life, created one of the most substantial bodies of work in modern American photography. And an ‘afterthought’ is precisely how this achievement is most often treated, a mere footnote to his status a minor character of the Sothern Gothic.

To be fair to Almereyda, he doesn’t go nearly so far in this respect as a recent profile of Eggleston for the New York Times in which we learn more about his drinking – and that of the author – than we do his photography.[ii] Worse still is how what is perceived here as Eggleston’s persona (though I don’t mean to suggest he’s acting) is treated as being somehow the very wellspring of his photography, that the ‘charm’ of one, as the last bathetic gasp of a vanished culture, is interchangeable with the value of his efforts as an artist, positioned as just another of those things that kept this scion of the plantation aristocracy occupied, along with having a (supposedly) open marriage, frequenting dive bars and a fondness for Savile Row suits. The subheading of this particular article claims that he is “every bit as brilliant, confounding and heartbreakingly soulful as the pictures he makes.” Of course, writing for a general audience, as in this case, is never going to foreground the issue of photography itself in a way that we would naturally expect from a more specialised setting, but the trend at work is unmistakable and no less pernicious for the willingness to play up the expectation of a particular narrative that wants to show the ‘artist’ as an anachronistic throwback, a rebel thumbing their nose at polite society and following their own rules, whatever the cost, something that Almereyda, much to his credit, doesn’t shy away from either, even if it’s only in showing how the long-suffering Winston tries to cajole the old man into wearing a jacket as they venture out into the Memphis night.

Eggleston himself has not, on the whole, made the appraisal of his work any easier, giving little idea as to why he made the pictures he did, except for the occasional gnomic reference, such as his ‘war with the obvious’ that is by now endlessly and quite pointlessly repeated. His obsession with making and viewing images (his own, naturally) is nonetheless made plain by Almereyda, who not only shows him taking pictures, but also touring an exhibition of his work at the Getty Museum and looking with real, evident pleasure at the pictures, playing with various cameras, leafing through stacks of photographs while declaring that he’s making the best work he ever has – you always think that, Haizlip sardonically tells him. But any purposeful discussion of exactly why he’s making the pictures, what his overall aim might be, is deliberately side-lined by Eggleston himself. Perhaps somewhat frustrated by this, Almereyda attempts to draw him out on the subject, firing questions at him while they sit in a diner, but Eggleston bats away every possibility with the air of a man long accustomed to winning such tedious engagements, saying merely he’s never thought of it that way, whatever it is – and, quite consciously I think, not saying what way he has thought of it, an omission I want to return to later.

In many ways this refusal to engage makes the dominant ‘biographical’ interpretations of his work seem almost inevitable, but as I have already suggested these interpretations also hinge on particular ideas we might have about artists in the culture at large, especially a romantic conception of the nonconformist perusing their own relentless vision against the odds, a narrative aided in Eggleston’s case by the supposed conviction of the art photography establishment that colour was not suitable for serious work until he singlehandedly broke down those barriers, and by the largely uncomprehending notices of his early critics. This is all grist for the Eggleston myth mill. The fact that it doesn’t entirely ring true, not least because his first big exhibition was in New York’s MoMA and that he had the support of major institutions right from the start, hardly matters. At a time when artists are schooled in professional practice, expected to master a polished discursive style and charged thousands (or in America, tens of thousands) a year for the privilege, this perception of Eggleston as a rebel outsider, an authentic Artist following his Muse regardless of fashion or the prevailing tastes of museum curators – as, in short, a kind of faux-primitive – has an undeniable attraction. It’s certainly hard to imagine Eggleston undertaking an MFA programme in photography, though no doubt he has inspired any number of people to do just that.

Similarly, there is little enough scope for understanding Eggleston’s long artistic effort within the framework of academic photographic criticism. Even how it is parsed in the context of press releases and museum texts is a further elaboration of this Great Man theory of his work. No one can really doubt the achievement, if only because of his ascension to the rank of blue-chip gallery artist, but it remains frustratingly difficult to say exactly what that achievement is, without falling back on the mythology that has accrued around it and the persona that his audience has come to expect (though again, it is perhaps not one he has knowingly adopted). The expectation in ‘successful’ art photography now most often seems to be for a clearly defined purpose to be resolved as a closed body of work, a project, accompanied by a statement that becomes the prism through which the work can be seen and understood. This goal-oriented mode of photographic practice is the result of its contemporary institutions, especially in education, that favour such well-defined outcomes and legible intent. Indeed, it often seems if the pictures themselves are secondary to the artist’s ability to elaborate on them. This, in itself, is not entirely without merit, but it’s hard to see how Eggleston’s fundamentally open-ended work could be well accommodated within such a schema.

This is not to say that there isn’t good writing on Eggleston in circulation or that there hasn’t been good writing on him in the past, just that we currently don’t have a very useful way of thinking about Eggleston’s work that doesn’t depend in some measure on a biographical interpretation.[iii] Faced with the often quite mysterious blankness of his images it’s difficult not to fall back on the kind of familiar narratives that might help us navigate it. Even being aware of the pitfalls doesn’t make it easy to avoid them; I certainly haven’t managed to do so here, and maybe have even played them up a little for effect. But for all its apparent centrality to it, there also remains some core of Eggleston’s work that resists integration into the smooth routines of contemporary photographic discourse with its flattening calculus of aims and outcomes. This seems to me something we should value and cultivate, even in those instances where Eggleston’s approach doesn’t appear equal to the challenges of our present moment. The crucial point, though, is that the value of the photography as such doesn’t depend on any assumption we might have about the person who made it or any quality we might assign to their character. Instead, it resides solely in his engagement with photography as a means of encountering the world around him and of communicating that experience to the viewer.

Returning, then, to the scene of Almereyda’s interrogation in the diner, Eggleston evasively answering he hadn’t thought of it (meaning his photography) in that way, could be either taken as he hadn’t thought about it at all, which seems unlikely, or that he had thought it in some way other than what Almereyda is suggesting. A clue to what that might be comes from John Swarkowski’s introduction to the book William Eggleston’s Guide, a collection on which the two collaborated closely. What Swarkowski noted and brilliantly describes here is the fact that for Eggleston colour is not just another element in the picture, existing on the surface of a structure that has already been established, but the fundamental quality he uses to organise its visual space. Colour is the matrix from which the pictures emerge, and though he probably didn’t consciously decide to work in this manner, there is no doubt that he understood precisely what he was doing, had to, in order for his photographs to be “lifted from the visceral world with such tact and cunning” as Swarkowski puts it.[iv] Eggleston’s body of work is, in that sense, the product of a unique visual intelligence, an infinitely flexible programme for seeing photographically in which any subject whatsoever can be made into a meaningful picture – that is the real significance of Eggleston’s ‘democratic’ camera.

The resulting images are not desiccated exercises in formalism, but living slices of the present. And yet, even Swarkowski doesn’t dispute the fact that they are still a fundamentally subjective record of one man’s visual experience, indeed he considers this as being among their chief virtues: “visual analogues for the quality of one life, collectively a paradigm of a private view, a view one would have thought ineffable, described here with clarity, fullness and elegance.”[v] It seems to me, however, that the difference between this reading and the constraints of a ‘biographical’ interpretation is in the sense that the pictures are, to risk contradiction, almost impersonally subjective, so that the logic of the photographic frame is never subordinated to a description of his experience as anything other than that of an observer, albeit one preternaturally attuned to what he’s seeing, and who doesn’t also need to be a participant. In other words, the pictures come first, and it isn’t important for us to know who the subjects are or where the pictures were made in order to understand them, as pictures. Despite the implication of numerous accounts, written profiles, criticism and documentaries, Eggleston’s visual intelligence is not directly reducible to a narrative of specific places and people, to the facts (or often, assumptions) of his biography, however tempting it might be to think so.

That Eggleston’s major projects and their resulting publications have slanted the consideration of his subjects in different ways is in many respects due to the influence of his collaborators. Swarkowski is clear on the fact the he sees the work in the Guide as being fundamentally about place, while Thomas Weski’s influence on Los Alamos is perhaps less explicitly stated but it might well be seen as forming a study of the wider American social landscape, its relentless multiplication of signs increasingly disordered and difficult to navigate. The point being that while these different threads were perhaps not fully intended by Eggleston, they were nonetheless present in his work, which, although it can’t be readily characterised in terms of a single project, still has something like an overarching trajectory. This is defined by nothing so much as a trenchant engagement with the everyday as an arena for his visual experiments – and, indeed, as a source of visual pleasure. But given that a photograph is always, finally, a photograph of something, and in this case the ‘something’ was the world around him, Eggleston became, not altogether incidentally, the foremost visual anatomist of modern American life. In his best work the line between the formality of the picture and the existence of his subject (as he has seen it) is so blurred as to become all but inextricable.

What we might call the mythologies of William Eggleston, then, the accumulation of rumour and gossip that seems to make up the most widely circulated accounts of his work, appears on the surface at least to be the result of a sincere interest in someone who has always lived on their own terms, whatever that means, but it must also be understood as a reaction to the difficulty that exists in coming to grips with his prodigious output, an achievement that is almost universally admired, but that is uniquely difficult to characterise one way or another, except seemingly in terms of its maker’s status as a kind of savant who is unaware of – or simply unable to say – how and why these intriguing images have come into being. This impression is inadvertently reinforced by the way that contemporary photographic practices tend to be defined in terms of a specific set of aims building toward a single coherent project, something that is largely inimical to Eggleston’s methodology, so that here too some variation on ‘biographical’ criticism is undertaken to provide a framework for its appraisal, where he figures as, among other things, the singular ground-breaking pioneer of colour photography. What seems to be required, ultimately, is not some different way of situating the person who made these images, but a different way of thinking about the medium and its possibilities in light of them. Eggleston’s achievement might well be unrepeatable, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from it either.


[i] William Eggleston in the Real World (2005), Michael Almereyda, director. The conversation in the diner that I refer to later begins with a monologue from Eggleston on the evanescence of dreams in which he makes beautiful photographs, but that he can’t remember for long after waking. A comparison of this subject with the lyrics of Orbison’s song gives the film an unexpected poignancy, not least because of Leigh Haizlip’s death during the period of time that it covers.

[ii] William Eggleston, The Pioneer of Color Photography, by Augusten Burroughs. Photographs and video by Wolfgang Tillmans. To be clear, Burroughs’ article on Eggleston is very forthright about his status as a photographer, but at the same time suggests that it has as much to do with the man himself as the work he has produced. Those aspects of Eggleston’s story I elaborate above (the supposedly open marriage, the old Sothern money) are admittedly not mentioned, though the Savile Row suits do make an appearance.

[iii] For some exceptions that prove the rule, consider:; and

[iv] John Swarkowski, William Eggleston’s Guide, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1976/ 2002, pg. 12. Swarkowski’s introduction is not only one of the finest pieces of writing about Eggleston’s work, but surely counts among the best pieces of critical writing about the medium.

[v] Ibid, pg. 14.

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