William Eggleston’s color photographs are among the most widely viewed, and widely admired, in the medium. But I wanted to survey Eggleston’s unseen, unpublished work—his B-sides, bootlegs, unreleased tracks—and to that end I made five trips to Memphis in the course of a year, rummaging through roughly 35,000 digital scans archived by the Eggleston Artistic Trust. The intention was to come up with a book of images rescued from near oblivion. The resulting selection—necessarily partial, narrow, subjective—favors pictures of people, many of them the photographer’s blood relatives and close friends, a few of which appear below. When I reviewed an early layout with Bill, he was pleased to be confronted with images he’d clean forgotten about, and he provided considered commentary.
“She used to dance onstage with a hippie band called Insect Trust. Their music, you could say, was too new for me. You could say I never made the mistake of listening to their music. I was studying Bach at the time. I never made a mistake when I listened to Bach.”
“A cotton merchant. His fortune soared in the billions. He lost it all at once. His competitors ganged up and brought him down.” Hohenberg financed the first dye-transfer portfolio of Eggleston images, 14 Pictures, in 1974. “I don’t think he’ll ever know how important that was to me.”
“He was a dentist. We immediately became best friends. I can’t even say why. I’ll think about it, and if I come up with anything, you’ll be the first to know.”
T. C., alone in a graffiti-scrawled room, is the solitary nude in “William Eggleston’s Guide” (Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1976). The blood-red ceiling, one of Eggleston’s most iconic images, was located under T. C.’s roof in Greenwood, Mississippi, though that home, Bill takes pains to insist, is not the site on view here.
Richards was “a close friend from childhood, in Sumner, Mississippi.” He appears extensively in Eggleston’s epic video, Stranded in Canton, and assisted in the taking of flash-lit nightclub portraits during the same period. He’s also visible, beardless, in the “Guide,” gazing from within a parked car, above two bare feet, crossed at the ankles, braced on the car door.
This officially designated “art car” was painted by Tom Young, formerly Eggleston’s instructor at the University of Mississippi, and was driven in a New Orleans Mardi Gras parade. “He polished it, then painted it, then polished it some more. He spent months on it. He took it very seriously.” The columns are the lone surviving remnants of the Windsor Plantation, lost to fire in 1890. “That car’s probably the last thing you’d expect to see at that spot.”
Tom Young is also responsible for supplying young Eggleston with early, oracular advice, commanding him to photograph things around him, even or especially things he hated. From this, Eggleston extracted a credo, transforming hatred to love. His much-quoted remark—“I’ve been photographing democratically”—offers a measure of this reversal, his all-encompassing embrace and its Whitmanesque reach, whereby nearly every subject caught by his camera becomes part of an overflowing family album.
William Eggleston is among the most celebrated and influential photographers of the postwar era; the traveling exhibition “William Eggleston: Democratic Camera” is on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art through January.
Michael Almereyda’s films include Nadja (1994), Hamlet (2000), and William Eggleston in the Real World (2005). This text is excerpted from his afterword to William Eggleston: For Now, which gathers nearly ninety previously unknown Eggleston photographs in one volume and has just been published by Twin Palms.