Colorful memories from William Eggleston’s world

by Donald Eubank

William Eggleston is not one to think too much about theory. While you might anguish over the “mediated nature of photography,” he’ll be out taking pictures. When establishing my lack of bona fides during our interview at the Hara Museum in Tokyo last week by admitting a scarcity of knowledge about contemporary art, Eggleston happily replied, “I don’t know anything about contemporary art either.”

Characteristically cagey about discussing what his well-composed photographs mean, we casually talked about inspirations, the mid-20th century New York art scene and digital photography. After which he invited me to join him for a whiskey.

You have been to Tokyo many times; have you taken photos here?

No, just Kyoto. I don’t know why. Because Tokyo is so complicated, I still don’t understand it. It is very complicated, but I didn’t have that feeling in Kyoto. It felt much simpler.

Do you typically take photos when you travel?

I never know. If they appear yes, but I don’t plan ahead for any pictures. I am delighted if they appear.

Everyone picks up on the fact that your subjects are mundane, and say that you are trying to make a statement about the beauty of the banal. But when I look at your photos, that doesn’t seem to really be the point of them.

You are right. The point is that you want to make the photograph work in every way possible. Doesn’t matter where it is in the world.

Were you inspired by abstract painters?

Yes, Kandinsky, who I think started abstract painting; he remains my favorite painter. The others I admire — well, in America there is Ed Ruscha, a great artist, we are good friends. I love what he does.

Did you meet in New York?

You know, I can’t remember. I think he grew up in Oklahoma or Kansas. We were talking — we are very old, close friends. He said, “You know, where I grew up, you walk down to the corner, and there is nothing there!” He said that is what he likes about my pictures, because of nothing.

Was your first trip to New York in the 1960s?

No, by the ’50s I was quite familiar with New York. I had some very, very close friends, one was John Szarkowski, the curator at MOMA, and we spent a great deal of time together. And there were others, like the great photographer Lee Friedlander.

Was photography important as an art form in New York at that time?

I don’t know the answer to that. I know that what was considered art photography at the time I was not interested in. Black and white landscapes from out west. People like Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, but they didn’t excite me a bit. So I started doing what I am still doing and never looked back.

Did you want to separate yourself from those using black and white film, or did you start using color film by accident?

Partly by accident. I knew the world was in color. I started out doing black-and-white pictures. Nothing like the Western landscapes, more like black-and-white versions of what I am still doing in color. Then I became pretty good friends with people like Garry Winogrand, Diane Arbus, still am great friends with Stephen Shore, who work in color.

Did you know Andy Warhol when he appeared on the scene?

I knew him. One of his “stars” and I lived together — Viva. You would obviously know her if you know Andy’s films. I would meet Viva at what they called the Factory back then in the mid-’70s. We are still great friends. She lives out in California. I don’t get to see much of her. But I’ll be out there soon.

What was that scene like for you?

There were only a few people I was close to, like Paul Morrissey and Gerard Malanga. Most of them I was not close to . . . it was sort of a dirty scene. Viva was not like that at all.

Did Warhol’s and Roy Lichtenstein’s philosophy of Pop . . .

I was not much interested in that, what Andy was trying. It was so different from what I was personally interested in. I knew Andy, but we weren’t close. Viva, on the other hand, we have remained closest friends. I spoke to her just a few days ago, on the telephone.

Is there any difference between seeing and photographing for you?

I just know the pictures appear, out of nowhere. I never know when or where, could be any place on Earth. Like right here.

How did you end up with the exhibition at the Hara?

I don’t quite know. But of all the places, I would rather be showing here than in other places I know that show art in Tokyo. I am most respectful of the architecture. European really, Bauhaus influence. The Hara are great friends, we get along.

Do you think things will change with digital photography?

I don’t know. I don’t think much about the digital world . . . because I am in the analog world!

Do you ever use digital cameras, and if you do, have you ever printed from them?

I have many. But I just play with them. I have had some prints made, they look just like . . . normal pictures. They look great, but I am not using digital. I like film that you can hold in your hand.