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As evidenced in Michael Almereyda’s subtle, elegant documentary, William Eggleston is in no hurry. When shooting, the lanky Southerner saunters gracefully through dilapidated rural structures, small-town main streets, or burnt-grass suburbs, one hand crooked at the hip as if already inspecting the finished photograph in a gallery, scoping for the right moment with a modest intensity. He’s not an existential big-game hunter, looking to gun down the Now; he seeks, rather, to produce a lingering trace of his own act of perception.

“Why not be silent, patient, and watchful like a photographer?” Almereyda suggests, narrating over his own footage of Eggleston in action. On a commission from Gus Van Sant, a winter-jacketed Eggleston takes pictures of the Last Days director’s hometown, Mayfield, Kentucky. Almereyda follows, recording the photographer as he records a Mexican diner, a drugstore, and empty streets. One can’t help but remember Van Sant’s own disembodied video-gamic stalker-cam in such a context, but the wind bracing against the camera’s mic steadily testifies to the director’s presence. The
sound mix is enveloping and hyper-real: A trip to a restaurant becomes an immersive bath of fluorescent-light tone and refrigerator hum.

Almereyda is present in other ways as well. In between video visits with Eggleston and his circle of family and friends, he narrates over images of Eggleston’s oeuvre: perfect compositions of color depicting vernacular Americana in ways, as Almereyda says, both “recognizable and unknowable.” A sequence of family photos, many shot from low angles, “could have been taken by the family dog.” He glosses with the language of a philosopher-poet. Eggleston’s art, he says, expresses “an unbalanced emotion poised between fear and love.”

In the 1960s, Eggleston introduced color photography into an art world that still preferred monochrome: In tribute, Almereyda’s movie shares Eggleston’s color schemes, particularly his eye for brown earth against blue sky. Almereyda’s narrated slide shows give way, eventually, to footage of a real slide show, at a museum Q&A. The video camera’s autofocus resharpens with each new slide, adding an aleatory visual punctuation as the normally laconic Eggleston discusses his methods.

But much of this fascinating study depicts nothing at all, in the Warholian sense: Almereyda ushers us into long stretches of Eggleston’s downtime, when he is drinking with friends or family, or just sitting around listening to music. Remarkably, these are some of the most powerful scenes in the film. In one episode, Eggleston and his friend Leigh Haizlip hang out at her place. He sketches abstract scribble-bursts (color studies, naturally) on a notepad while she sucks a red lollipop, lounging on a couch in pajamas. As R.E.M.’s “Shiny Happy People” blares from the stereo, Haiz-lip talks about mortality. “I watched my mother die of cancer, and believe me it’s not worth it,” she drawls to Eggleston. “Better to shoot your fucking brains out.” The two are maybe sauced, but definitely saucy, and suddenly they’re starring in William Faulkner’s remake of Chelsea Girls.

As a discourse on the art of seeing, Eggleston structures an ongoing dialogue between photography and video (and thereby, cinema), culminating in a literal one between photographer and director in a barbecue joint. Almereyda suggests that “reality is dreamlike and photography is real” (much like the dream life feel of Almereyda’s films, from Another Girl Another Planet to Hamlet), but the tight-lipped Eggleston’s not having it. “Whatever it is about pictures, photographs,” Eggleston says later, “it’s just about impossible to follow up with words. They don’t have anything to do with each other.”