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Eggleston's maternal grandfather, a judge in Sumner, Miss., owned a sizable cotton plantation. After Eggleston's father shipped off to the Pacific in World War II, the boy and his mother shuttled for years between Florida and his grandparents' places in Mississippi. Eggleston preferred their house in town to the plantation. "Life in the country was sort of remote," he says. "It was lonely. There was nothing in every direction but cotton fields."
Because he suffered from asthma as a boy, Eggleston was mostly an indoor child, absorbed by the piano, cameras and sound equipment. Later he attended a few colleges, including Vanderbilt and the University of Mississippi, without managing to graduate from any. But at Ole Miss, where he studied painting, he started to wonder seriously about photography. And by the early '70s, he had come upon dye-transfer printing, a method that produces deeply saturated color. This is why, when he makes a picture of a rooftop sign that reads PEACHES!, the orange letters just about sear your retina.
Though he's widely traveled and keeps an apartment in Paris, Eggleston has worked mostly in the South. All the same, it makes him squirm to hear people describe him as a regional artist--Faulkner with a Leica. "I have never considered myself making what one would call Southern art," he says. "There is such a thing, but I don't do it." He insists he's not interested in local color, though there's no denying that it finds its way into a lot of his images. "The pictures look Southern because that's where they were taken," he says with a shrug. "I don't know how to make them look any other way, unless I go changing the landscape around here with chainsaws."
Eggleston also doesn't like the term snapshot aesthetic, but from early on, just like Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander, he's been making pictures that are brilliantly open to the flotsam of the visible world, the little accidents of vision and oddball details that snapshots automatically gather up. He is fascinated by American junk-space, the banal stretches of tract housing and strip malls. But there's nothing camp or ironic about Eggleston's work. The power of his pictures rests on their casual but absolute sincerity, their conviction that small is beautiful. There's something very American about this, a valorization of the commonplace, carried to a level of intensity that can curl your toes. Looking at his picture of a soda bottle simply perched on the hood of a car, you can't help thinking of what Henry James once wrote about Nathaniel Hawthorne: "The minuteness of the things that attract his attention, and that he deems worthy of being commemorated, is frequently extreme."
Eggleston has said he doesn't make a distinction between one image and another. So how does he choose which ones to publish or exhibit? "I don't," he says. And he means it. His working method is to take hundreds, even thousands of pictures--though rarely more than one shot of any particular scene--and let his curator or editors sort it out. For "William Eggleston's Guide," John Szarkowski, the legendary MOMA photo curator, effectively served a role like the one that editor Maxwell Perkins played for novelist Thomas Wolfe, drawing a meaningful work out of a superabundant output.