Thirty-two years ago, the photographer William Eggleston leaped from obscurity to notoriety with an art-world debut that the New York Times called "the most hated show of the year." It was a fancy dive from the most visible platform there could be, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. "William Eggleston's Guide," it was called, as though he were taking you on a tour, but one prone to dwell on the sketchiest roadside attractions. In a photo by Eggleston there might be a sunbeam that sweetly anoints a full dish rack on a white sink. There might also be a dismal suburban tract house or a bunch of plastic bottles scattered across a dirt road. It was a make-of-it-what-you-will exhibition, and a lot of critics didn't know what to make of it. The Times critic called it "perfectly boring."
What made it all the more challenging was that Eggleston worked in color. In 1976 serious photographers were expected to work in black and white, and most museums assumed that camera art could be made only within the palette you might find in a cinder block. And then there were Eggleston's pictures of places where no one had ever bothered to point a camera before, like the green tiled interior of an empty shower stall or the strangely mesmerizing blackness of an open kitchen oven. In 1961 photographer Robert Frank said, "You can photograph anything now." But it took Eggleston to prove it.
"When I was taking that oven picture," Eggleston says today, "I thought the results would be unlike any other picture I had seen. You just don't encounter too many pictures of open ovens." All these years later, you still don't, but his work is no longer so puzzling. What it is instead is famous, influential and even venerated, the kind of work that gets you a big retrospective like the one opening on Nov. 7 at the Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan and traveling to Munich and Washington. With about 150 photos and two videos, including a rather loopy one from the early 1970s, "William Eggleston: Democratic Camera" will be the largest American museum show ever devoted to his work. And this time, no one will be bored.
Eggleston is what you might call a bohemian of independent means, a descendant of the Mississippi Delta planter aristocracy who was also for a time the lover of Viva, the Andy Warhol superstar. Since the mid-1960s, he has lived, comfortably and at full throttle, in Memphis, Tenn.
When he comes to the door, he's in his customary Wasp regalia, a button- down cotton shirt and white suede shoes. Quantities of nicotine and bourbon have produced his voice, a liquid Southern baritone that reminds you of his friend Shelby Foote. It's a voice he dispenses in small doses. What that means is that he can stretch a sentence into next week while he deliberates on his next syllable or two.
He has lived an interesting life. At 69, Eggleston has been married to his wife Rosa for 44 years and raised three children. But his definition of wedlock has been elastic enough to permit numerous girlfriends and affairs. He has been known to shoot indoors--guns, not just pictures. There have been various run-ins with the law. And over the years, he's been the best of friends with Jim Beam and Jack Daniel's. He's also been one of the most original artists of your lifetime.