RICHARD LACAYO: You were born in 1939. When your father went off to the Pacific in World War II, you and your mother moved in with her parents, who had a cotton plantation in the Mississippi delta. But your grandfather was also a judge in Sumner, Miss., about 15 miles away, and kept a house there. So did you mostly grow up in the house in town?
WILLIAM EGGLESTON: We had two houses. One was the plantation. But my mother stayed at the Sumner house, so I considered that little tiny town my place. Life in the country was sort of remote. It was lonely — the nearest neighbor was fifteen miles. There was nothing in every direction but cotton fields.
Were you an indoors kind of a kid?
I had to be — I had asthma. Until I was about eight or ten, then suddenly it went away forever. Back then there was nothing they could do for it. We had a big oxygen tank in my room. I would spend about twenty minutes a day inhaling oxygen and that seemed to help. It was severe for years, so I was pretty much restricted to being an indoor person. Playing any kind of sports or just running around the block, I would get sick and sweaty.
And you played piano since childhood. Can you read music?
I can. I don't like reading music. It's like learning a language. You can't read music proficiently overnight. It takes time, it's boring work.
I know you also draw all the time, abstract drawings in color. You started to draw as a kid?
And even as a kid the drawings I did were abstract. They weren't pictures of people or things, they were mostly shapes.
Do you find as you've gotten older that your photography is being overtaken by the drawing, the way it happened with Cartier-Bresson? In his later years he stopped taking pictures and returned to painting full time.
Oh no. They're completely separate for me.
You attended a few colleges but never graduated. But when you were at your first school, Vanderbilt, a friend urged you to get a camera and start taking pictures, which you did. At what point did you start to think, I'm not a painter, I'm a photographer?
It never crossed my mind. I first entered Vanderbilt as a freshman and for several years before that I had been to a boarding school. My closest friend there shared my interest in music and electronics. Photography completely disinterested me. Even then he would urge me to get a camera. But it wasn't until we were both at Vanderbilt that he marched me down to the premiere camera store in Nashville and I bought a camera with a view finder. This was in the days before single lens reflex.
So if somebody hadn't come along and pushed you into photography you might never have found your way there?
I give him all credit. Because the very day I bought the camera I loaded it up and went to Centennial Park where they have this big reproduction of the Parthenon. I took some color pictures of it and had them developed as slides. And I was astonished at how perfectly they came up. From that moment on photography was it for me. Which was reflected in my lack of attendance at other classes.
Let me ask you about a particular picture of yours that was one of the first I ever saw — a glowing red pick-up truck in a farm field. How did you get that luminous effect?
That originated as a slide, and I liked it enough to immediately have it made a dye transfer print. I had a wonderful printer in Chicago. That was one of the first groups of slides I sent him. He would send me back about four or five proofs. They were all superb. I would tell him over the phone: "They all look wonderful!"
What struck me about that picture is that it showed that just by intensifying the color of an ordinary thing, it could be totally transformed, really almost transfigured.
In reality that scene was that intense just in nature. The sunlight was that brilliant, late in the afternoon the sunlight had a brilliant orange cast. And when I saw the slide I thought, that's just the way it really looks.
The post-Impressionists used brilliant color to give ordinary things an almost hallucinatory quality. Do you favor dye transfer printing because it gives you an ability to separately intensify colors?
I didn't really try to do that ever. I try to transfer unmanipulated scenes, without heightening the color saturation.
Do you ever use digital cameras now?
No, I have some that have been sent to me by manufacturers to test out and I have just really toyed with them. For one thing they're not beautiful machines like a Leica. I've seen beautiful digital prints that other people have made, but I've not seen any reason to abandon film.
I know that for you a photograph is primarily a visual field, a set of aesthetic decisions, not a way of suggesting a story to the viewer. But inevitably when you look at a picture like the one of that old guy sitting on a bed with a gun, you wonder: "What's going on here? Who is this guy and how did Bill Eggleston get in the room with him?"
I can imagine that, but to me it was nothing special. He was the husband of a quite distant relative. We were having an amicable conversation. Many years before he had been a night watchman for this very small town in southern Mississippi. And he was just showing me the kind of pistol they carried around. I think a few minutes before that he had pulled up his shirt and was showing me several scars he had. We were great friends.
Entretien avec Richard Lacayo ayant eu lieu en octobre 2008, publié en ligne ici et là.