interview by GLENN O’BRIEN
portraits by TERRY RICHARDSON
All works by William Eggleston, from The Democratic Forest, c. 1983-1986, copyright Eggleston Artistic Trust, courtesy of David Zwirner, New York/London
I visited the legendary photographer William Eggleston at the Bowery Hotel in New York. Terry Richardson was just finishing up his portrait sitting, amusing Eggleston — very elegant in a crisp white shirt and cravat — with his multiple shots. I set up my recorder opposite him, but then he gestured for me to come sit next to him on a love seat. He exudes great charm. It was almost romantic. It was less an interview than an audience. The first time I interviewed him, it had been a hilarious three-way with Stephen Shore, which brought the full house down at Cooper Union. Eggleston is a laconic charmer and though this was a brief talk, it was delightful.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Yes, it’s a very good magazine. It’s nominally a fashion magazine, but a really good art magazine.
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — I think it’s possible I was in it, but I’m not sure.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Purple Fashion. Yes, you were.
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — Do you also write for American magazines?
GLENN O’BRIEN — I write for a lot of magazines. But magazines aren’t really my main thing. I’m more writing books and…
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — You’re a writer and editor.
GLENN O’BRIEN — I was editor of Interview magazine three times.
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — I liked Interview.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Yeah, I assigned Nick Herman to interview you for Interview. Harmony Korine.
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — Oh, Harmony?
GLENN O’BRIEN — Yeah.
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — You know him?
GLENN O’BRIEN — Yeah.
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — Harmony…
GLENN O’BRIEN — Mr. Nashville. Seems like Nashville is becoming a hip spot. A lot of people are moving there.
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — It’s where the music is.
GLENN O’BRIEN — But I think artists who can’t afford to live in New York City anymore are moving to Nashville.
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — Mmm-hmm.
GLENN O’BRIEN — So I was just watching the documentary about you, and you said, “I’m color-blind.” Then you said, “Well, my wife said I’m color-blind.”
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — That’s right.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Did you ever feel like you were color-blind?
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — Well, she always did.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Why? Because you wore the wrong tie?
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — I don’t know. My favorite color happens to be green, and she kept saying I couldn’t really see green. Heh-heh.
GLENN O’BRIEN — What did she think you were seeing?
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — I have no idea.
GLENN O’BRIEN — I guess it’s okay unless you see red as green; that’s bad. For motorists.
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — I’ve retired from motoring. It’s just my wife’s observation.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Maybe it’s just having a great color sense.
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — Hmm…
GLENN O’BRIEN — Do regions have their own palettes, color palettes?
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — I’ve never thought about it. I have no idea. Maybe.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Actually, Huger Foote’s book My Friend From Memphis made me think about that. [Huger Foote is a protégé of Eggleston.] You see a lot of really bright red and yellow, I think, in Tennessee that you wouldn’t see here. The South is…
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — Red likes to fight with every other color. Put it that way.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Does it usually win?
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — I have no idea. [Laughs]
GLENN O’BRIEN — Have you ever lit pictures? I mean, used lights besides natural lighting?
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — Really, almost always my light is natural. Occasionally a flash, if absolutely necessary.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Do you know Burk Uzzle?
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — Mmm-hmm. Yes.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Burk really amazed me because I found out all those incredible outdoor pictures he takes were artificially lit. He has a truck full of lights, to light nature.
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — I didn’t know that.
GLENN O’BRIEN — In your lifetime, do you think electric lighting has changed perception of color?
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — Not to me.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Your pictures tend to look the same from one decade to another.
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — Well, some of them are lit with electric lights. But most of them are daylight.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Now we have those new fluorescent light bulbs.
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — Yeah. I don’t like the spectrum. Incandescent is no blessing to me.
GLENN O’BRIEN — You say in the film that you became a photographer because a friend of yours told you to buy a camera, and so you went out and bought a camera.
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — Mmm-hmm. I bought one like that one.
GLENN O’BRIEN — You’d never given it any thought before? Wasn’t your uncle a photographer? Maybe he was a judge.
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — Oh, that was my grandfather. Just as a hobby. Not seriously.
GLENN O’BRIEN — So when did you get the idea that you could be a photographer and that it would be your profession?
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — My best friend in prep school kept telling me… He later became a doctor. He’s dead now. We were both in our first year at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. And he insisted I go downtown and buy a camera, and I bought the best one they had. I loved it from that moment on.
GLENN O’BRIEN — But your show at the Museum of Modern Art… Did you have any recognition before that? I know you were in a sort of posse of interesting photographers, like Lee Friedlander, Diane Arbus, and…
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — I think that MoMA show was my first, let’s just say, really important exhibition.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Did you ever publish before?
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — No. A little bit. But not really.
GLENN O’BRIEN — How did John Szarkowski find you?
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — I think through Lee Friedlander, who was a great friend. Do you know his work?
GLENN O’BRIEN — Yeah.
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — I think I was up here [New York City] a lot… So many times. Lee said, “You should meet this fellow, John Szarkowski, who is a brilliant curator of particular photography.” I showed him my pictures. I don’t know what he thought of them because Friedlander only works in black-and-white. But that’s how the MoMA show came about.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Were there any color photographers on the scene?
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — Practically none. You probably know them. One who showed me a few color pictures was Joel Meyerowitz. And, at about that same time, I met Stephen Shore … he was quite young … but is still around.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Yes.
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — Some other people worked in color, but not as serious artist — either in advertising or fashion. People like Avedon.
GLENN O’BRIEN — You knew Avedon, right?
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — Yes.
GLENN O’BRIEN — How did you meet him?
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — Through a mutual friend, Jean Stein. You know her?
GLENN O’BRIEN — Yeah.
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — We’re old old old, very close friends. She would have these, I think, salons, pretty often. Occasionally people like Avedon would be there, and she introduced us. We’re still great friends. A lot of well-known people would throw these soirées.
GLENN O’BRIEN — I was thinking of her because an artist named Deborah Kass just made a print that’s like Andy Warhol’s [Richard] Nixon, except it’s Donald Trump. Warhol’s Nixon picture was because of Jean Stein, who said, “Andy, you have to do something for [George] McGovern. We can’t have Nixon as president.” So Warhol did this horrible picture of Nixon, and it said, “Vote McGovern” on it. Every year after that, Andy got audited by the IRS [Internal Revenue Service], for the rest of his life.
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — That’s funny.
GLENN O’BRIEN — So where did the title The Democratic Forest come from?
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — It was from a conversation at a luncheon with some friends down in Mississippi, in Oxford. They said, “Well, what have you been doing today, William?” I said, “Oh, just taking pictures here and there, nothing in particular.” They said, “Well, what would you call them?” And just out of the blue I came up with the title, I think, The Democratic Forest, because most of them were out in the forest.
GLENN O’BRIEN — There’s another book with “Democratic” in the title.
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — There’s a Whitney [Museum of American Art] book of mine called Democratic Camera, but I didn’t make that title up.
GLENN O’BRIEN — I thought it maybe had something to do with your process, the way you’ll take one picture, then other people edit your film… You withdraw from the process, or maybe abstain from parts of it more than most artists. It seems rather formal, your method.
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — I never really think much about the process technically. I just use film, and somebody else develops it and prints it. I don’t do it myself.
GLENN O’BRIEN — When Harmony interviewed you, you still had never taken a digital picture. Are you still a digital virgin?
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — True. I don’t know how. Understand, I have digital cameras that the manufacturers send me, like Leica and Fuji, a whole lot of them. I don’t ever use them. I can’t figure them out.
GLENN O’BRIEN — This is what everybody uses now. I’m a terrible photographer, but I have 12,000 followers on Instagram. I think they just want to see what I’m wearing.
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — [Chuckles] You’re probably right.
GLENN O’BRIEN — So, I take it that you were able to be a photographer without having a day job.
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — Yeah. That is accurate.
GLENN O’BRIEN — How often would you pick up the camera?
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — There was money in my family. So I never had a job. But this is my job.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Well, it’s a good job.
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — And working in colors, you have to be well off because it’s expensive.
GLENN O’BRIEN — I remember when I was a kid, I would take one picture because I couldn’t afford to take more than one picture.
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — Mmm-hmm.
GLENN O’BRIEN — How often would you shoot? Like, daily?
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — Practically daily, no matter where I am in the world. It didn’t have to be in the South for me to be at home in the environment… Like, a lot of people connect me with the South. I don’t, myself.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Yeah. I love Paris. Do you speak French?
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — I am supposed to. I studied it in college. That was so long ago. I had to drop the French class to go to the art department. There was a conflict. So I’ve forgotten the little bit I learned. I’ve tried in Paris, where I am so much. But I can’t understand them, and they can’t understand me. So I quit. Everybody there speaks English.
GLENN O’BRIEN — My French friends are always talking English around me, and one night they said: “Why do we have to speak English just because of you? You speak French tonight.” So I had an extra bottle of wine, and I think I got through it.
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — Well, that’s one way of getting there.
GLENN O’BRIEN — I wonder, when you see a film of you working, you have a very specific way of looking at things… Does that ever get turned off? Or are you still doing that in your head when you’re not working, framing things, or…
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — That is so. I see pictures all the time and if I don’t have a camera, I wish I did.
GLENN O’BRIEN — How good does it have to be before you say, “Bring me my camera”?
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — Well, I’ll be riding along with somebody, and just wherever they’re going… Just out of curiosity, I’ll take whatever I see. That’s a typical day.
GLENN O’BRIEN — On a good day, how many shots would you get?
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — No particular number. It varies.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Also, there are times when you’re working, and photographers will say, “Great light, great light.” Photographers are always saying that, and people who aren’t photographers don’t understand what that means — although I’ve spent a whole afternoon waiting for the light to be great when I’m working on a film or something. But what does that mean to you? Is it a time of day?
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — It has a lot to do with the time of day, particularly the warm light in late afternoon. One could say, “Great light.”
GLENN O’BRIEN — Yeah. Okay, so, from the ’50s and ’60s, I think, smaller American cities started losing their artists. If you wanted to be an artist, you’d move to New York. You’d move to LA, maybe…
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — Yeah. Some of them moved to Paris…
GLENN O’BRIEN — Do you think that ruined this country, the flight of the artists?
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — I never thought about it. I know in most cases, it did not improve their work. They were told to do it and went ahead. Just because New York and Paris are famous in art doesn’t mean you’re going to solve the problem… If you’re good, you’re good anywhere.
GLENN O’BRIEN — But do you think it helps not to be told, not to have opinions?
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — Probably.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Oh, do you know who lives almost across the street? Robert Frank.
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — Oh, we know each other! I thought he lived in Nova Scotia.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Well, I think he’s a seasonal nomad like you. He’s been here lately, right around the corner on Bleecker Street, sitting on the street by the Fight Club.
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — Really?
GLENN O’BRIEN — So, what do you think about color? I know you say that it hasn’t changed for you. But I remember when I was a kid, we had beautiful colors. Something happened to the chromatic palette of the world. Everything became dull, like metallic cars.
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — Yeah, I agree.
GLENN O’BRIEN — When I interviewed you last time, with Stephen Shore, I said…
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — Was that at Cooper Union?
GLENN O’BRIEN — Yes. I said, “Have you ever been arrested?” Stephen said, “No, of course not.” And you said, “Well, of course I have.”
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — I had an attitude that of course… Who hadn’t, except for Stephen?
GLENN O’BRIEN — I said, “What were you arrested for?” You said, “As I recall, it had something to do with alcohol and an automobile.”
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — Drunk driving. Mmm-hmm.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Do you have a driver’s license?
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — I used to. I haven’t gone to the trouble of getting it renewed. I think the last time I drove was several years ago. I can drive, though.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Do you still drink?
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — Mmm. A lot.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Do you feel that is part of your work at all?
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — I’ve never been able to take a photograph after one or two drinks. Never. It numbs something. I don’t know what.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Can you play the piano after a couple of drinks?
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — Yes. Since I play every day and every night, and I always have a stiff drink or two. A good drink breaks down, umm, something.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Your liver. Mine is taking a long rest.
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — It’s my medicine.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Tell me about Doctor Nick. You were friends with Elvis Presley’s notorious physician.
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — Oh, he was a great friend.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Did you know Elvis, too?
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — No. We never met. I only knew Priscilla, his wife, but I don’t think they got along very well.
GLENN O’BRIEN — I think the first time I saw your pictures was in Artforum, of Graceland.
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — I like that magazine.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Yeah, I write for them. I have a book coming out of my writing for Artforum this year. Are you a reader?
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — Basically, no. Except for technical books. One of my principal subjects in my library of books is quantum physics, which is in the realm of the technical. Quantum electrodynamics. I understand it. I’m not generally into literature. But I’ve read a good bit. I know some of the great works.
GLENN O’BRIEN — What do you think about fashion and fashion photography?
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — Not much.
GLENN O’BRIEN — You were friends with Avedon. Were there any other fashion photographers?
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — I never thought of Richard as a fashion photographer, but that’s how he…
GLENN O’BRIEN — Brought home the bacon.
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — … how he became famous. But he was so much more than just that. He was super-brilliant, a genius. Anything he wanted to photograph… It didn’t have to be fashion.
GLENN O’BRIEN — He made some great little films. There’s one you can watch online of him shooting Lauren Hutton, and it’s like a shoot gone wrong — really funny, great sense of humor. All the fashion photographers now want to be art photographers.
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — I know. That’s too bad.
GLENN O’BRIEN — You must get calls from big fashion companies asking you to shoot for them, right?
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — Never.
GLENN O’BRIEN — No? Have you ever done a commercial job?
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — No. I think I know what they want. I just don’t think I can do it.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Good for you! … I’m good friends with Nan Goldin.
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — Oh, I love her. I saw her last night.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Really? So that’s why she didn’t come to my thing last night.
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — Yeah, she was at that big party Aperture threw. We’ve loved each other for 40 years. We’re great friends.
GLENN O’BRIEN — I told her that I was seeing you, and she said, “Oh, I love him.” She said, “You know, I slept with him.”
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — She what? Ha-ha. Not really.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Well, she then said, “Nothing really happened.”
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — That’s right. That’s what I meant.
GLENN O’BRIEN — She said: “We passed out. When we woke up in the morning, we were covered in salami.”
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — [Laughs] She’s so funny.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Nan hates doing commercial jobs, but she is willing to survive.
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — I don’t know what she’s up to in photography. We just adore each other as friends. We never talk about each other’s work.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Well, she does have a good color sense, I think. That’s one thing you have in common.
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — I know. She did one incredibly good thing. You probably know about it. It’s called The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. It’s brilliant. Very strange.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Well, her world is strange.
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — In fact, the title has nothing to do with the content of the work.
GLENN O’BRIEN — It’s a good title, though.
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — It’s a great title. And yet, in the contents of the work, the title doesn’t seem to fit.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Well, there’s not much sex. It’s maybe before sex and after sex. I don’t know.
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — That’s more like it. Yeah. Nan and I never had sex. I think it makes me understand what she does more.
GLENN O’BRIEN — It’s funny how technically clumsy she is. She fumbles around, and drops things, and curses, and then, lo and behold…
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — True. I’ve thought about that, too.
GLENN O’BRIEN — I was with her, and she was trying to take a picture, and she couldn’t load the camera, then she dropped the battery. She had everybody in the store looking for the battery. It was really hilarious.
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — I can easily see that.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Her process is transcendental fumbling, but the result is miraculous. Are you attracted to ruins?
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — Somewhat. Like Ancient Greece, you mean?
GLENN O’BRIEN — Yeah. I went to Carthage last year, and I just…
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — The idea of Carthage is fascinating. But I’ve never been there.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Well, it’s still safe to go there. It’s one of the places in the Arab world where you can still go.
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — Yeah. The Third World is so fucked up. Really… You know what I mean… It’s backward, like before Neanderthal, the mentality.
GLENN O’BRIEN — The Neanderthals disappeared. Maybe they were the smart ones.
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — Could be.
GLENN O’BRIEN — I love this line that was in the interview you did with Harmony. You said your friend, the cowboy star Lash LaRue, said, “Bill, the streets of Jupiter are clean.”
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — He said, “Oh, Bill, the streets are clean on Jupiter.” That’s the way he put it. And I never really figured that out, what he meant. He was so dead serious.
GLENN O’BRIEN — That’s just one of those cosmic things, like the last words of Dutch Schultz.
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — Mmm-hmm.
GLENN O’BRIEN — So what are your big plans for the future?
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — I don’t know. Honestly.
GLENN O’BRIEN — You’re more into letting it happen?
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — Exactly.
GLENN O’BRIEN — What do you believe in?
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — Nothing. I’m an atheist. I’m not a Christian. I’m not a Buddhist. I’m not anything…
GLENN O’BRIEN — I thought maybe you would say, “Beauty.”
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — I believe in science. I believe in quantum physics. That’s quite enough. That’s like a religion. So you might say I’m religious, in that way.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Did you know Irving Penn?
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — Yes. Not that well. Not anything like I knew Avedon. I think we both won what’s called a Hasselblad Award, which is like photography’s Nobel Prize, and I think Irving won it, too… That’s one of the few times we were together. A real gentleman, Penn.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Yeah. How did you hook up with Jürgen [Teller]?
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — I don’t remember how that came about.
GLENN O’BRIEN — That was a commercial job. Did you get any money out of Marc Jacobs?
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — Zero.
GLENN O’BRIEN — That should be corrected. Marc, if you’re reading this…
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — Well, I’m just not in that world. Period. Not a bit, or any part of it. Now, I don’t think Jürgen is with Marc Jacobs anymore. I don’t know why. I never asked him.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Marc changes all the time, and Jürgen always finds something. I worked with Jürgen for Calvin Klein also. He’s fun to work with.
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — I adore Teller’s company. We just get along so well.
GLENN O’BRIEN — I’ve done a lot of advertising. I did a campaign with Avedon for Calvin Klein.
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — Oh, really?
GLENN O’BRIEN — Yeah. We started Heroin Chic.
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — I never was with Avedon when he was photographing.
GLENN O’BRIEN — He was tough when he was working. Very precise with what he wanted.
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — Mmm-hmm. I can easily imagine it, yeah. With the large negative.
GLENN O’BRIEN — You know, I think you were a big influence on Terry, who was photographing you, because he’s very Mister One-Shot.
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — Well, I told him he’s taking too many pictures. It was driving me crazy. They were all the same picture. [Laughs]
GLENN O’BRIEN — I’m lucky if I get one.
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — Yeah, but you’re a writer.
GLENN O’BRIEN — Writer is the worst job in the world.
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — Well…
GLENN O’BRIEN — I think I have one more question written down. You’re so laconic…
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — Is that some kind of machine you were looking through?
GLENN O’BRIEN — I had notes on my phone. But that was good. We spoke for 37 minutes.
WILLIAM EGGLESTON — I enjoyed every minute.
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