Barry Schwabsky: In the '60s when you started using colour, that was something quite rare for non commerical photography. Did it seem like a big leap to you at the time or just a natural progression?
William Eggleston: It didn't seem like a leap, I don't think. It took a while to get the materials to work right. The first results didn't work.
BS: How so?
WE: It was basically a matter of exposure. I was going by the manufacturer's recommendations. Let's say the manufacturer recommended ASA 80, which I used it at. Turned out that was untrue, the figure they gave in the literature. Its actual speed was about ASA 10. So the first results I saw were weak -- not much density, not much detail in the shadows, generally what happens when you underexpose film. This was colour negative film, and at the time there was only one, and that was Kodacolor. So I switched films to transparency -- Kodachrome slides, which is very saturated, very sharp. Unfortunately it had to be projected to be seen and I really did not like being forced to see them only in that way. I didn't know about it at the time but I could have made a dye transfer from the slides. The dye transfer process, up until then, had been almost 100% used for advertising and fashion. The subjects and results were many miles away from what I had envisioned for my own work. But once I discovered the process and the first ones were made, I don't think I used any other process. And about that same time I was discovering really how, I thought, to correctly expose negatives, which gave me prints. I wasn't forced to project. Other than that I don't remember regarding it as any breakthrough. I knew that I had wanted to see images in colour for a long time although I was very busy working in black and white and not unhappy with the results. But once I started working in colour I did very little black and white work. Though some.
BS: Actually I was surprised, when I saw your film Stranded in Canton, I really didn't know what to expect -- both the fact that it was in black and white rather than in colour, and also the fact that the whole feeling of the film is quite different from your photographs, which often seem so still and empty, in contrast to the raucous milieu depicted in the film.
WE: : I can understand that. At that time -- this was 1973, when that footage was shot -- the only portable equipment was black and white. There was no such thing as even VHS. The colour that existed was technically wonderful but weighed hundreds and hundreds of pounds -- not a bit mobile. It was designed to be used in studio situations, with dolly and tripods and great amounts of light, so that ruled that out. I started out in half-inch, black and white reel-to-reel video and was really thrilled with the way it looked even though it was not in colour. In fact, I think it may be true that if I had begun several years later working with a small colour camera I might not have liked it as much as I did the black and white. I'm not sure.
BS: Have you ever used a moving image since then or was that a one-time thing?
WE: It was a one-time thing. I spent about a one or two year period between 1973 and '74 and then it was finished and I started experimenting in colour with what was available which was very heavy, not just the recording equipment but the camera which was worse, having it on your shoulder and I abandoned that very quickly and put my energy back into photography.
BS: I was also, from the film, very curious about your interest in music. It reminded me that I'd read somewhere that you played piano on one of Big Star's records. Is that true?
WE: On one song. Alex Chilton was singing and I was, the way I put it, playing around him. His singing was the musical equivalent of abstract painting and I was playing very clearly, not abstract music. I just heard that recording recently. I'd never sat and listened to it.
BS: What was the name of the song?
WE: "Nature Boy" -- Nat King Cole. A completely new version. It was a song I'd suggested to him, for sole reason that I used to listen to an old, old record of it and knew I could play it well enough. I don't think I was part of any of the other tracks. The album was called Radio City and the cover had one of my pictures on it, The Red Ceiling.*
BS: Looking at the pictures here in the show, the line came to my mind -- I don't remember who said it -- that American poetry is an affair of places, not people. Obviously there are people in your pictures, but I get the sense that the people are an emanation of the place. Does that make sense to you?
WE: Yes, I think so. I've responded in the past to similar questions in this way. It is possible to look at it like this. Generally, to me, people, human beings, are not terrifically interesting to look at in photographs. It's what they do that's more interesting. That's why, I suppose, you see more pictures that are really of things or of places. They're practically never portraits.
BS: Do you see your subject matter as specifically American? Specifically Southern?
WE: No. Particularly not specifically Southern. I just happen to live there -- grew up there. That's why a lot of the pictures you will have seen were taken in the South. Simply because I'm there more than other places. But I feel just as much as home, really, in a completely foreign environment.
BS: Do you ever travel specifically in order to take photographs?
WE: I won't have any preconceptions about a location but I occasionally have an idea to go to a certain place and see what I can see there. Most of the time I will be in some place not related to photography -- I might be traveling with a friend who's gone somewhere on their own business -- and a great many pictures might come from that.
BS: A lot of younger photographers have been captivated by the look of your images but unlike you they do tend to seek out or even construct what they take pictures of. Do you look much at the work of younger photographers?
WE: Not much. I don't look at other photographs much at all. I don't know why. I study my own a lot. I'm just not drawn to wanting to look at other people's images.
BS: What about when you were getting started? Were there particular pictures that made you think, I’d like to do something like that?
WE: There was nothing out there. I began in 1957 and what we know today of the world of, let's call it, art photography, really didn't much exist. The little of it that did was static and black and white, mostly landscapes, a lot of them out West -- Edward Weston and Ansel Adams. Number one, it didn't interest me, that kind of photography and second, I didn't have anything to take its place to look at. There weren't photographic books -- just, for want a of a better word, cheap color magazines that didn't have serious work. So I was forced to be self-taught. Photography, except for commercial picture-taking, wasn't taught. You couldn't go to a university and take a photography course. It didn't exist. In some colleges and universities there barely was a department where you could study painting. So I didn't have the opportunity to look at what, if it had been good, I'm sure I would have liked. I was struck by one particular photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson, simply -- I think he was considered in the realm of photojournalism, but of all those photojournalists, I thought he was more grounded in proper painting and someone really aware of the principals of composition in art. Otherwise I was not drawn to what is called photojournalism, most of which you could see in publications like Life magazine.
BS: In that situation, not having anyplace to learn about what if anything other photographers were doing, as you developed your own work, how did you go about trying to make it known? What were the outlets for that?
WE: There practically weren't any! I would eventually meet some other photographers who seemed to be doing something related to what I thought photography should be, such as Lee Friedlander, Diane Arbus, and Garry Winogrand. And I met John Szarkowski, the photography curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. John and I worked very closely for a number of years on what became a large exhibition of colour pictures and a book. [Guide]
BS: When I first started writing about art 20 years ago, you rarely saw photography in an art gallery. There were photo galleries and there were art galleries that showed painting and sculpture and so on. Obviously that's all changed…
WE: There was a small handful of photo galleries that often showed some very fine works alongside very stupid things. That was a long time ago.
BS: But it seems a very quick shift. Any conjectures as to what brought it about?
WE: Things just develop on their own. It seems that photography just became really popular very quickly but it did take time. At present, photography seems to be, you might say, the most popular of the fine arts. Which I'm glad to be able to say!
BS: This show is focused on work you did 30 or more years ago. What about your more recent work?
WE: I'm very active right now. But the reason for this show had a lot to do with the fact that when John and I were organizing the show we did at MoMA, for the relatively few we chose for the exhibition and especially the book, called the Guide -- those were extracted from thousands of pictures. Then I went on to other projects. So, I didn't forget the rest. I always assumed they would be resurrected. This is an example of some of that work.
BS: The one with the light bulb and the ceiling with the sort of wood grain treatment seems like a direct counterpart to The Red Ceiling.
WE: They were taken years apart and without any thought about any connection. They just both happen to be of ceilings and light bulbs. But they couldn't be more different in every other way…
Interview réalisée pour Kulureflash le 22 novembre 2004.