I happened to be in New Orleans after taking a job to write a film treatment about Frank O’Hara. So I was reading about O’Hara—I knew almost nothing about him—and I became smitten. On lunch breaks in New York O’Hara would routinely buzz out of his office at the Museum of Modern Art, install himself in the display window of the local typewriter store and dash off fearless high-speed poems. How terrific to be as quick, expressive, intuitive, and self-destructive as Frank O’Hara. He made me feel like a safe-playing plodder.
I’d also been thinking about William Eggleston—when you’re in the South, it’s hard not to—and I made a connection. It seemed to me that Eggleston was working within or near O’Hara’s wavelength, ducking conventional or “classical” thinking while making photographs informed by deep intelligence, daring, and in fact an unexpected sense of tradition. His pictures carry something of O’Hara’s quickness, candor, lightness, sharpness. There’s a shared affection for the patchwork of mundane details that fill up your life. The overworked Faulkner/Eggleston analogy always seemed forced and limited to me. If you want a true literary parallel for what Eggleston does, look to O’Hara. Eggleston’s pictures feel similarly tossed-off and prismatic. Hard-edged fragments, refracting a world of inner and outer experience.
Back in New York, I mentioned this to Donald Rosenfeld, producer of the O’Hara movie (which remains not quite produced), and relayed my wish to shoot a rough-and-ready Eggleston portrait. Don found his way to an ATM and took out enough cash to get me on a plane to Memphis the next day.
Five years later, at my safe, plodding pace, I finished the movie.
Contax, Mamiya, and Leica.
Actually, when Gus Van Sant commissioned Eggleston to photograph anything he wanted in Mayfield, Kentucky, there was an obscure hope that Bill would come up with stills for a short film Gus was directing at the time. Other movies on which Eggleston roamed the set: John Huston’s Annie (1982), David Byrne’s True Stories (1985), Kasi Lemmons’ Eve’s Bayou (1997). Bill took some pictures—none featuring actors—and Van Sant’s movie wrapped, and it was discovered that a camera failure had blighted a number of Eggleston’s film rolls. So Bill made a return trip to Kentucky after the production pulled up its stakes—which timed out nicely with my impromptu visit. After Mayfield, we hung out in Memphis for a couple days, then flew to L.A. for the slide lecture. A busy week.
The Eggleston Artistic Trust—established in 1992, and now lovingly administered by Winston Eggleston and Cotty Chubb—maintains a digital archive of nearly everything Eggleston shoots. Images the size of postage stamps can be summoned up on a computer screen, in staggering profusion, grid after grid, inventoried by location and date. And so it’s possible to review our full Mayfield trip, a visit to McDonald’s, pictures snapped from the car, even a couple shots in which I was unknowingly caught in the frame. This amounts to an incredible visual diary, but not all the pictures are amazing—how could they be?—and I chose not to show what Bill was shooting until we arrived at the abandoned house. Didn’t want to clutter up the real-time flow of things or to deflate the movie by frontloading it with pictures that were less than wonderful.
And here I can lament one gap in this fairly thorough portrait. I was never around to record the process by which Eggleston’s work gets edited. The photographer tends to retreat and trust those closest to him—Winston, Cotty, the late Walter Hopps—and particular curators: John Szarkowski, Mark Holborn, Thomas Weski. Just as he trusted me to record and select episodes in his life, leaving himself the latitude to get on with living it. Thus the very name of the Eggleston Artistic Trust can be regarded as a literal component of the photographer’s approach, and part of the foundation of his ongoing luck.
Initially I hadn’t noticed the preposterous sign: REAL FIXER UPPER $200,000. The house was well past fixing up, at any price, but its dilapidation was, of course, perfect, and the mashed-in roof provided one standout instance whereby Eggleston broke with his insistent claim that he takes “only one picture of one thing.” He took three shots of the roof. Maybe he was worried about the wind jostling the camera. That assaultive wind, abrading my camera’s mike, prompted a few reviewers to condemn the movie as the work of an incompetent amateur. Truth to tell,
I wanted that stark sound, chose to keep it as proof of the movie’s rawness. Call it a tribute to Frank O’Hara. In other sequences, the sound editor (Elmo Weber!) seamlessly subtracted this sort of noise. At any rate, it’d be hard to say which of the roof pictures is better or best.
Bill circled the place and wasn’t intending to go in until I climbed through a back window and opened the front door. The photo on this page appeared on the cover of Blind Spot magazine, was included in the Cartier Foundation’s 2001 Eggleston retrospective in Paris, and was published in the exhibition’s accompanying book.
I did my best to avoid aping Eggleston’s style, manner, framing, sensibility—but you can pretty well appreciate the dilemma. Given a fair amount of time with his work, it becomes easy to assume that you, too, can take pictures like William Eggleston’s. It’s a measure of the persuasiveness of his vision, to apply an overused word—this way his images give off seemingly absorbable, imitable aesthetic thrills. And so among a multitude of commercial and amateur photographers we see outpourings of pseudo Egglestons, failed faux Egglestons. Viva, the Warhol actress who was Bill’s pal and companion in New York through much of the ’70s, coined a term for such pictures: Fegglestons. Given the odds, Eggleston’s massive output, and the way we are all prisoners of our own unreliable reflexes, it’s worth admitting that Bill himself has been known to produce the occasional Feggleston.
A line from Rumi comes to mind: “What a piece of bread looks like depends on whether you are hungry or not.”
Also: “Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment.”
There was a “pure” version of the movie, without voice-over, and I have some nostalgia for it. But on showing an unnarrated rough cut to friends I became aware of a certain restiveness, if not outright hostility, and afterward I heard things like: “I loved it, I got it, but I’m not so sure my friends will go for it.” In the meantime, I was given a chance to view successive cuts of Stranded in Canton, Eggleston’s thirty-some hours of reel-to-reel video shot in the early ’70s and patiently distilled to seventy-seven minutes by Memphis historian Robert Gordon. Robert had layered in voice-over from a recent Eggleston interview during which Bill, in an expansive mood, reminisced about people and events documented in the tapes. The names and facts and drily recounted mayhem were entertaining but had the unfortunate effect of gumming up the immediacy of the raw footage. I said it was like a DJ talking over his music. And so I succeeded in siphoning narration out of Eggleston’s episodic epic while ladling it onto my own movie. (The need for explication, as you see, can easily spin out of control.)
Over the years, I’ve taken issue with the assumption that a sober person is necessarily more intelligent than a nonsober person.
(All the same, I never saw Eggleston take a photograph while drinking.)
“It never entered my mind” is the response Eggleston offered to my persistent questions about the nature of photography, during our “climactic” exchange in Tops Bar-B-Cue. We hit a wall: “It never entered my mind!”—a fair defense against overthinking, self-consciousness, posturing. I lobbed the questions with the expectation, the certainty, that they’d be deflected. Why interfere with a process that’s essentially intuitive and, often as not, inspired? A good or great photographer sees and shows more than he can say.
But—or rather, therefore—in another mode Eggleston confirms what he denies. An image of Leigh Haizlip (page 43; one of the few photos Bill took of her, from what I can glean) provides powerful evidence not only that this particular woman existed but that the photographer had feelings for her. The medium is innately elegiac—each picture records a moment, if not a world, that no longer exists—and the formal sweetness of Eggleston’s work, the seeming casualness, the throwaway grace, is fused with this implicit awareness. As with Frank O’Hara’s habit of unrevised improvisation, to take “only one picture of one thing” raises the stakes in an existential game.
You can chase this thought, or you can choose to say “it never entered my mind”—which happens to be the name and recurring refrain of a Rodgers and Hart song Bill played on the piano while courting his wife. I’ve heard him and Rosa describe it as “our song.” The lyrics give voice to the desolation of a man “uneasy in my easy chair,” following the departure of his lover, despite her explicit warnings and predictions. His future was staring him in the face, but, or therefore: “It never entered my mind.”
Is there an element of exploitation to the movie? Did it ever occur to me that I was merely a voyeur? Safe to say that anyone making a documentary is walking this particular ledge. As a temporary foothold, I’ll include a patch of dialogue from a recent conversation between Eggleston and Lee Friedlander—what Tod Papageorge called the “Fried Egg Event,” organized by the Yale Photography Department and moderated by Gregory Crewdson, December 5, 2005.
CREWDSON: Do you think photographs are voyeuristic?
EGGLESTON: Can you say more about what you mean by that?
CREWDSON: Sure. Just by the nature of the process of taking a picture, some way or other you are separated from the world, by your camera.
FRIEDLANDER: I think it’s the opposite. I think the camera, rather than separates, brings me in. It’s the vehicle, the fulcrum, for bringing you into the world.
Another question that came up was: Do you think photography has a connection to truth?
“I don’t,” William Eggleston slowly answered, “like to think of myself as a liar.”