Features / Photography

“Things just happen, as things do”: the world through the eyes of William Eggleston


Lucy Bourton


Jody Rogac

“I never know if I’m coming to the end of everything I want to know about the world, or just the beginning,” ponders William Eggleston at the age of 77. Hailed as the pioneer of colour photography, William Eggleston has remained loyal to the medium for 60 years, creating endearing photographs despite his atypical subject matter. The result provokes a memory-inducing sigh among viewers the world over, images that resonate but remain otherworldly.

William’s photographs depict the way he sees the world, a method that is never calculated or replicable. “I have a personal discipline of taking one picture of one thing and that is it. One image is quite enough I think,” he explains. “If something doesn’t turn out, it just doesn’t. I don’t worry about it.” His light approach to photography is personal. “I still take photographs now. I find it very difficult to tell photographs from last week from the ones taken 20 years before. They look pretty much the same and I am happy I can say that. I like my own work you see.”


Despite exhibitions of William’s work often displaying photographs from the 1960s, they remain relevant through their familiarity and fondness. This is because his photographs are him, a character that in conversation is in equal parts modest and mischievous. When asking William about his recent work, he explains that the changing landscape of America, geographically and politically, hasn’t altered his photography. “I cannot really tell how the change of America is affecting my photographs, it could be, but not noticeable to me. It changes them, I was going to say slowly, but actually I’m not sure that is true. It is dependent on the person.”

William’s recent photographic expeditions apply the same discipline he has always had. In Memphis, where he has lived for the large part of his life, he now goes out into the countryside to photograph. “It’s been quite warm this winter. One day the weather was pretty and I thought I’d have a drive around, we ended up driving around a lot. Oh, we’d stop at anything. I never know what is going to come up, I don’t plan ahead in my photographs. I don’t know why, I don’t think about whatever turns up, it’s always a surprise. Therefore I don’t try to plan on any subject.


William’s work is unaffected aesthetically, a result of the photographer remaining dedicated to using film. “I usually use just Leica’s, they are very well made and they work all the time, I don’t have to worry one bit. I still use film too, I never use digital. It’s not the waiting process of film that I like, it’s just that I understand it so well. I have a lot of digital cameras, but I never use them. I don’t understand them.” To print his photographs William uses two techniques. “I still use dye transfer quite a bit, it’s a wonderful process. At one time I was doing a lot of video printing, I have labs that do that for me. I don’t know how to describe it, when it is really correct it’s very much like dye transfer: prominent and accurate. I don’t think that the colours are any better, they are just that tiny bit different.”

With an unconcerned approach to his work, William has the patience to let the world produce charming moments, linking to his keen interest in quantum physics. An area William says he would have pursued if not photography, he explains “everything about it interests me. It is about how everything works in the world, including us”. On asking the photographer if he has figured it all out yet, he coyly replies: “Oh, quite a bit.”


Outside of physics and photography William’s creative pursuits are famously music and drawing. For our interview, ever the gentleman, he politely turns down the stereo as he speaks. “I was in the middle of Beethoven’s Symphony No.7, the third movement. I’m working on a piano transcription of that symphony, it is one of my favourites. I was just picking up on my mistakes.” Playing the piano is an outlet for the photographer: “I love doing it, I just play for myself, I don’t do it in public. It’s important to me to really carefully listen to yourself, that’s how you know it’s going to be right. Too many pianists don’t listen to themselves, I’m not like that.” William’s musical tastes include “everything from Bach to Beethoven, to Brahms and Tchaikovsky and a lot of American songs as well,” but when shooting he prefers the quiet. “I am silent while photographing, but music is often going on in my head. I think it might be distracting to have the radio on or something. Music certainly can be and is distracting, and the more complex it is the more distracting it can be. Composers like Bach you see are complex, it takes quite a lot of concentration to just understand what he is doing, although it is so beautiful at the same time. In my opinion, Bach really was a quantum physicist because his music works perfectly in the everyday, and at the same time it was so beautiful.”


Drawing is the most consistent creative medium William pursues other than photography, but to him they are separate entities. “I don’t ever think of them at the same time. I think of them as completely different animals that don’t know each other, if that makes any sense.” Where William’s photographs capture realistic attributes of life, his drawings lean towards the conceptual. “I draw abstractions, they’re not ever realistic and I don’t know how to describe what they’re like. I like them though.” These drawings live in hundreds of sketchbooks he has completed over the years and are occasionally exhibited. “Honestly, I could use anything to draw but I particularly enjoy felt tip markers. They’re so quick and you can’t make a mess. I love those, I use them all the time.” These drawings became the inspiration and focus for William’s daughter, Andra Eggleston’s textile line. “She is really busy doing that and I’m really proud of her,” he explains.


Family remains continually important to the photographer. The father of three children, he additionally works closely with his son Winston on The Eggleston Trust. His wife, Rosa Dossett Eggleston unfortunately died in 2015. In asking William what his wife was like he responds: “Well, she liked to criticise my work. Oh, she had a brilliant eye, her comments were always exactly correct.” The pair spent their lives together, in their younger years they were known in the Mississippi Delta for their matching blue Cadillacs. “We got along very well, I wish she was still around. As children we grew up together, she was also a plantation owner, we knew each other since we were four years old. We were together for so many years I can’t quite get it straight in my mind that she is gone. I don’t like it a bit.”

Throughout their lives Rosa and William travelled frequently. “We would go around the world all the time,” and he continues to do so. “The only place I haven’t been is Australia. I would probably like it, I imagine it’d be quite empty.” William elaborates on his travels to “everywhere you can imagine,” including Asia and South America, but most frequently Paris. These trips he says involve, “well, drinking and photographing,” but it is a lifestyle William is grateful to have achieved. “I travel around a lot and I feel very lucky in that way, but I didn’t plan on any of this.”


William Eggleston’s lifestyle mirrors his work, in that he lives in a state of the unplanned and the impromptu. When discussing his work previously it has been thought that William is short and a little sharp of tongue. However, it seems more that he is content. He doesn’t feel the need to provide an answer on technique, or a justification on how he views the world around him when it is simply a second nature. “I’m not conscious of a body of work,” William concludes. “It just is what it is.”