William Eggleston is a pioneering American photographer known for his vivid, poetic and mysterious images. A new exhibition at London’s National Portrait Gallery, of 100 works surveys his career from the 1960s to today. It’s the most comprehensive display of his portrait photography ever. Fred Maynard writes in The Economist,
“Refusing to be pinned down to any viewpoint or agenda, Eggleston’s greatest strength is his almost enraging ambiguity. He is neither a sentimentalist nor a documentarian, neither subjective nor objective: he somehow captures that ephemeral moment we experience when we’re not quite sure why a memory sticks with us, why an otherwise mundane glance from a stranger seems to take on a greater significance.“
Highlights of the NPG exhibition will include monumental prints of photographs first seen forty years ago: the artist’s uncle Adyn Schuyler, Sr with his assistant Jasper Staples in Cassidy Bayou, Mississippi, and Devoe Money in Jackson, Mississippi. (First and second images of Eggleston’s, below)
Adyn Schuyler is my old friend Maude Schuyler Clay‘s father and William Eggleston is her cousin. We’ve know each other since we worked together in the Vanity Fair art department in the mid-80s – she as a photo editor and I, as a designer. We have many friends in common and have remained in touch over the years, but I’ve never really asked her about her legendary relative. An established photographer in her own right, I thought this show was as good excuse as any to mix business with pleasure…
So, tell me your direct family relation to Eggleston…
His mother and my mother were sisters who grew up in the house that I now live in, in Sumner, Mississippi –Grey Gardens South. So, that makes Bill and me first cousins.
Was he well-known photographer as you were growing up, or was it no big deal…?
…just the world’s coolest relative.
Did his work influence you? Or is it in your family’s DNA to document?
Our common grandfather who built the house was a planter, lawyer, and judge who was a fanatic photography ‘hobbiest’. All his work was done on glass plate. Bill’s influence on me was huge but I started out taking serious color pictures of people with my old Rolleiflex, mainly because I did not want to ‘copy’ his color photographs. His photos, until the National Portrait gallery show, was not about color portraits per se. He has been nothing but supportive of my work from the get-go.
What is it from your knowledge of how he works, that makes his point of view –his eye– SO compelling. Two of my favorite photographs are the shot of the inside of a freezer and another of the inside of an oven. Those are comparable to Warhol’s soup can paintings. They are SO absurd they’re brilliant…
Mundane everyday prosaic things and places in lush color. His compositions look like The Golden Mean most of time.
What about you? Do you still shoot film or have you gone digital?
Half and half…
Do you like the prints you get with digital…? Or are you old school?
Yes, old school here but the world has gone digital. There is a new process: digitally scanning your film negative, then they take the scan and put through a ‘water like chemical bath’… the results not unlike the old C-prints which were all done in darkroom.
What does that water process do to the final print… there are so many filters now I can make a pic I took yesterday look like a 70s Eggleston…
It makes it look like an old C-print. Yes, you can get a digital filter to do similar.
I’m curious about his process. You must have seen his contact sheets… does he shoot a ton and then edit ruthlessly or is his eye so refined he gets what he wants in a few frames?
One shot usually.
When we were at VF, I found it fascinating to look at photographer’s contact sheets – Helmut, Penn, etc… it reveals a lot.
He uses mostly Leica but sometimes Fugi. Hasselblad gave him their latest fancy one when he won that Hasselblad award. Has used 5 x 7 and very limited 8 x 10 cameras. He does not ‘linger’ in any one picture, as far as I know. Usually one or two shots at most. This from looking at his contact sheets for 40 years!
…just talked to him this morning, he’s back in Memphis.
What do you think you’ve learned from him? Personally and professionally… did he give you any advice…?
Not really,just to go out and take pictures. As the ‘assistant’ I rode around with him in late afternoon light and observed his work; then would see results when contacts came back week or so later. One thing that made me focus (no pun) on my color portraits is I really did not want to be someone who took ‘Bill Eggleston color pics.’ Since he did not and still says, as of yesterday, that he doesn’t love the NPG show because his work was not about pictures of people, a minuscule part of his output. He says his whole oeuvre is color pictures that sometimes have a person in them…
You know NPG did mini-reproductions of the Falco shot of us (above) and my Bill portrait (below) in their gift shop for, I think, 5 or 6 pounds!
Yes, I saw and made a lame joke on your Facebook about that being really heavy for shipping… hey, did you go to the opening?
Alas, no. Trying to get to Germany for Lang’s (husband & fellow photographer, Langdon Clay) Cars at Night, book. Not sure of the date, but supposedly soon, it’s in current Steidl catalog –Luc Sante wrote the foreword. We will most likely hop over to London. The show is up ’til October...
Btw, today happens to be Maude’s birthday! Happy Birthday! William Eggleston Portraits is at the National Portrait Gallery, London through October 23, 2016.
All photographs below are by William Eggleston...