Interview: Whitney Curator Elisabeth Sussman on William Eggleston: Democratic Camera


William Eggleston, Morton, Mississippi 1969-70

William Eggleston: Democratic Camera, Photographs and Video, 1961-2008, opened at the Whitney on November 7th and runs through January 25. The exhibition is Eggleston’s first one-man show in New York since his much-publicized, John Szarkwoski-curated Color Photographs debut at the Museum of Modern Art in 1976, an offering reviled by the Times’ Hilton Kramer as “perfectly banal” and pronounced “the most hated show of the year” in a year-end review by Gene Thornton of the same paper.

Now, however, Eggleston–a renowned raconteur and hard-drinking, if debonair, Southern gentleman–is hailed as the progenitor of color photography’s acceptance as an art form. Filmmakers Gus Van Sant, David Lynch, David Byrne and Sofia Coppola (for starters) all confess influence from Eggleston’s exploration, if not reverberant celebration of, yes, the “perfectly banal.”

Democratic Camera, a gathering of over 150 photographs as well as Stranded in Canton (a film culled from early ’70s shots of Eggleston’s bar friends), was curated by Thomas Weski of Munich’s Haus der Kunst and Whitney’s Elisabeth Sussman (whose previous curatorial credits include extensive work with photographers Diane Arbus and Nan Goldin). Shortly after this show’s opening, we spoke with Sussman about the life, labor and legend of William Eggleston. – Rob Trucks

A certain amount of myth making takes place in the careers of many artists, whether they’re musicians or painters or photographers. And the South is also quite prone to promulgating its own stories and fables. And here we have a Southern artist. Is there an Eggleston myth? And if so, does the story behind Eggleston help the viewer of his work in any way?

I think most people who come to the Whitney don’t know the Eggleston myth. I think there are a lot of people that do–surprisingly, you know, a lot of people are hip to him–but on the other hand, there are people who have never heard of him who come here and just really like what he’s done. So I don’t think you have to know the myth at all to really like it.

I’m not suggesting that you spend a lot of time on the third floor watching patrons as they come in, but it seems as though you would likely be able to tell within 30 seconds whether they have extensive knowledge of Eggleston.

I haven’t really gone over there and watched the viewers too much, but stories come drifting back to me about people that have been spied there. And I wish I got more stories, but I heard one that really touched me. Over the weekend somebody I know called me and said she had been following Julian Bond around the exhibition. And that really said something to me. And I’m sure there’s a lot of that that I’m missing, you know, because people just haven’t told me. But I think there are people who are making pilgrimages to see it.

Is there anything in hindsight that you really wish had been included that isn’t in the show?

Well, not desperately, but I’m a curator who likes nooks and crannies. My main feeling was not to have this terrible exhaustion, boredom that comes over you when you’ve seen too many photographs. I would even cut this show down, you know, just so as to avoid that boredom factor. But if I were to include everything, I probably would’ve gone for some just weird nooks and crannies that people don’t know and that are not necessarily interesting pictures but are interesting situations. And there are a few things like that, you know, three or four that I can think of that I know about that I felt were overlooked, that we had to overlook.

I assume there were certain images that you felt had to be included in an Eggleston show of this size.

Yeah, sure.

Like the tricycle.

Sure. The red ceiling. And obviously the great photograph by the bayou of his uncle and the black guy. Yeah, there’s certain things like that that you wouldn’t want to do a show . . .

How many mandatory images are we talking about?

Maybe 20. I mean, more of them now are absolutely, you know, I couldn’t imagine the show without, but going into it, you know, that was probably . . . But probably unlike [Color Photographs curator] John Szarkowski, and even other editors of his work, I was very interested in the backstory, in the biography behind some of these pictures and so there are things that I know about Eggleston now that sort of began to feed my choices, and the more that I found out the more I would want certain things in.

How big is this show?

Well, it’s like 150 pictures, something like that.

The Color Photographs exhibition ’76. I’m not sure that vilified is too strong a word. Hilton Kramer wrote a scathing review for the Times. Gene Thornton, another Times critic called it, “the most hated show of the year.” But Eggleston says that he wasn’t bothered the criticism a bit. Do you believe that?

Well, he either was then or is now pretty independent. I mean, he really marches to his own drummer. He’s never had to work, really, a day in his life, so he doesn’t have to please anybody but himself, or his close circle of friends. I think he’s always had a world of sort of cronies, you know, from Memphis and Mississippi or from New York or from wherever, that he could, you know, sort of get back with, that didn’t depend on the New York adulation. So there were people in Memphis who were there waiting for him when he came back and who he was working with. And he had relationships with powerful people in the ’70s. John Szarkowski was one of them. Walter Hopps was another. [Eggleston’s] girlfriend was Viva who was a Warhol superstar. . . Plus his own self-esteem or self-absorption that probably . . . And he did live outside of this crazy city.

And the whole idea of making it as a photographer was not like his goal in life. So I think he survived it. I mean, undoubtedly he was probably hurt by it, but it’s interesting because the one display of Stranded in Canton happened at Yale in the fall of ’76, and the show had opened the previous spring. So by the fall of ’76 he’s absorbed enough in presenting that at one of the colleges at Yale.

You know, he’s doing something major, in my opinion, in the ’70s. At Yale, the guy who sponsored him told me that he was adored, so something was working.

You mentioned having to go back to the work he did in the ’80s that hadn’t been so much seen before. And whether the criticism is water off of a duck’s back or not, there’s a monograph in ’76 and not another one until 1989.

Which was the Democratic Forest. Right.

Is that an Eggleston decision? ‘If you’re going to treat me like that then I’m not going to show you my work?’ Or is that more art publishers or museums saying, ‘Okay, this is a little hot right now?’ Especially if we look at what all he’s put out in the last decade or so, thirteen years is a huge gap between such a well-publicized debut and the second monograph.

Yeah, yeah. I mean, if you look closely at the shows and the publication, the gallery shows and, you know, personal trips and appearances and lectures, they’re constant during the ’80s. He just doesn’t have a big museum presence in this country until the end of the ’80s, so I have to believe . . . He had no handlers at that point. There was making of portfolios, making of books. Some of that was going on. There were some sales. There was a gallery in Washington, D.C. So there was some activity. But I think he was pretty unruly during that period, and his children were quite young.

So they couldn’t handle him at the time.

They couldn’t handle him. And he was unruly. He had a serious other relationship with another woman, and I think he was deep into alcohol. Maybe even deeper at that point. So he was, you know, considered hard to manage.

But Eggleston has his own life that he seems to be living quite fully, and maybe no more so than the late ’70s and early ’80s. And again, we have the gap between monographs. Is there a respective diminishment in production during that era?

He’s taking pictures all the time.

Sober or not, affairs or not, he’s taking pictures.


It’s just not getting shown as much.

Yeah, yeah. People aren’t taking on the job of editing him down and making a coherence out of it.

Yet can you look at a specific Eggleston image and, at least from your own viewpoint, see one as more self-conscious than another?

Well, I’m just thinking about this image where there’s this guy, this sort of middle-aged guy sitting on a bed with a quilt, and there’s a gun next to him, and he’s got his mouth open. He’s like hollering in a way. You know, he’s hollering at Eggleston. I mean, there’s an element of self-consciousness in that. And if you see large stretches of Stranded in Canton, then you see there’s a guy, Egg, who they’re always talking to off-camera, whose voice can be heard. I mean, it’s not made up in advance kind of ‘I am self-consciously going to, you know, move from A to B here.’ Not at all. But there is a persona in that. I would say that’s more self-conscious in a way.

In contrast to the reception of the ’76 show, the press for this current exhibition has been almost fawning–one blogger even referred to this show as Eggleston’s official canonization. But it’s been 32 years since “Color Photographs” which the critical world hated and now the man walks on water. When did the switch flip?

Fairly recently, obviously. I mean, the same thing happened with [Diane] Arbus, and the Eggleston prints are still not as expensive as the Arbus prints. But, you know, Arbus in some ways was . . . People were very suspicious of her. They didn’t know whether she was a humanist or a terrible exploitive photographer. Lots of dissension around the family’s treatment of the estate, and so on and so forth. The place was littered with questions, and then suddenly a vintage print does not come on the market that is not snatched up, you know, or treasured in some way. And deservedly so. So somehow something happened, you know, with that reputation, too.

Is there anything more to it than time? I mean, you’re talking about how people thought Arbus might be exploitive. Is it anything more than needing the time to get comfortable with a new way of looking at things?

Yeah, I think so. I think it is [more].

Not just time.

It’s not just time.

Do we have to be comfortable with the artist as a human being?

Many great artists have complexities. You know, no one’s a constant person from birth to death. People change and circumstances make them different. And certainly you can say about Eggleston that he is a person full of contradictions and complexities, and the same thing could be said about Arbus. But they are both capable of making completely great, honest statements about the complexities of their own vision, and I personally feel that what it takes, that something of what it takes is a curatorial vision that will match them, that doesn’t turn away from them.

Also, obviously there’s a moment in time when the heirs or the handlers of these artists decide that this is a moment not to waste and to be as open as possible, and so curators have more to work with, too. But I think the openness of the curatorial vision to the complexities of the photographer, the better our understanding and the more positive our feelings are. So I think that’s helped both Arbus and Eggleston, who are the two people that I can speak about.

It took 32 years to get from Eggleston’s “Color Photographs” debut to this show, which is the most comprehensive we’ve seen in the U.S. Why did it take so long?

Well, one thing is that, you know, Europeans decide that certain Americans are, you know, the people . . .

More real than others?

Yeah. That was a decision that was made about Eggleston in Europe and I think that that counted for some of his popularity. He was picked up by people in media culture, you know, filmmakers, because they looked at his photographs and they found a vision of psychological and artistic complexity there. That helped him. So he had David Lynch and David Byrne, particularly, and Sofia Coppola, Gus Van Sant. I mean, those are important artists in the ’90s, the ’80s and ’90s, that looked at his photographs and saw a lot. That was good. I personally feel that what has helped Eggleston is people recognizing his interest in music.


It’s all over the place.

Oh, I know he has an interest in music. I used to own a copy of Big Star’s Radio City on vinyl [Eggleston’s photograph of a red ceiling graces the cover and the album is included in the exhibition]. In fact, I used to book Alex Chilton in this club I ran.

I talked to him. I didn’t press him for what I really wanted. There is a section of Stranded in Canton that has Alex on it that’s just amazing.

And he has to give permission?

And he won’t. So I have it. What is he singing? “My Rival.” It’s to die for. I just, you know, if I had . . . You asked me about a regret, that’s it. That I could not . . . But on the other hand, I never asked him because I knew what the answer was going to be because he had denied the people who were editing the thing to let them use it.

But do you know the story of the Chiltons and Eggleston? It’s nice. I’m very lucky that within the two years of working on it that I could get that far, because between Bill’s memory, you know . . . Somehow it was really hard to get onto the Chilton stuff and I bet I could’ve gotten further with that, but anyway the parents of Alex Chilton were very good friends of Eggleston’s, very good friends. And he knew Alex Chilton as a boy.

He [Alex] talked to me on the phone. He was completely open about the questions I asked him. In fact, it was very interesting, because I was asking him all about his parents, Sidney and Mary Chilton and the whole thing, and he talked, talked, talked. But what I really wanted was him singing in this beautiful piece of tape that Bill shot. And anyway, in the time of working on this, I then went to Yale to talk to the photo students and I met this person there whose girlfriend was trying to do a documentary–and she is doing it–on Big Star. In fact, I think she was at the opening. And the one person who will not cooperate is Alex Chilton. So, we’ll get him one of these days.

There are great pictures of Big Star. Or maybe it’s the Box Tops. They’re not great, but that Bill took. Do you know them? They’re on the flip side of the red ceiling.

On Radio City.

Yeah, and Alex told me that he, the band asked Bill to come and take their portraits, studio portraits, and he shot a whole lot of them. And they were terrible. And if you see the flip side you see they are bad. But if you ask me things that, you know, if I had all my druthers, I would put some of them in just to see what they look like. But we did not.

But the great story about that that Alex Chilton told me, and I believe him, is that he chose the red ceiling for the Big Star record sleeve before it was chosen for the Guide.

Eggleston chose it or Alex chose it?

Alex chose it. Because Eggleston, you know the way he works, he gets everything printed up, you know, however. And he’s got stacks like that.

You mentioned not asking Alex because you knew what the answer would be. But it sounds like Alex and Bill were pretty comfortable with each other. Do you think that Alex could’ve asked for any photo he wanted and Bill would’ve said, “Yes?”

Oh yeah. That’s my sense. Sure. He knew Alex. I mean, he knew Alex since he was a little boy. I mean, those people were just . . . You know, he knew them. But during the time he was making Stranded they were obviously hanging out at the same bars with the same . . . even though there was this age difference. But Bill Eggleston used to sit down and play the piano with Alex’s father, so they had a very close relationship. But I’m telling you, this piece of film is just gorgeous.

You know you’re killing me here, right?

I know. I’m sorry. He had a big fight with Winston over it because they were trying to put Stranded together, and Stranded is a tough piece so they wanted a sort of nice piece at the end of it, so in one of the early cuts they have Alex singing “My Rival” and it is just mellow beyond belief. And anyway, Alex said he didn’t like the way he looked. Evidently he had acne as a child and he’s got some acne scars. But he looks beautiful in this.

Has Alex seen it?

He’s seen it.

He’s seen it and he’s self-conscious about it.

He will not allow it. But a lot of people feel that way about Stranded. They do not like the way they look on it. But, if you could see, if you could hear Alex Chilton . . . I think they do another song too, but the one that sticks with me is “My Rival.”

Alex didn’t come up for the opening?

To my knowledge he did not. If he had been here on one of the nights Bill was here, Bill would’ve pointed him out to me. But I’m sure he’s coming to see it. In fact, I told him, you know, I hoped he’d come and he said he comes in and out of New York.

We talk about Eggleston being unstudied and, in a real sense, self-taught. He’s an outsider in several ways. I mean, he looked at Cartier-Bresson. He was influenced by Evans.

Watch out on the influence by Evans, too. He would not be happy to hear that, and I have seen it in some of the reviews and it’s not true.

I thought the Almereyda film [William Eggleston in the Real World] did a pretty good job with the juxtaposition of the Evans and the Eggleston.

I’m sure he did. I’ve seen it once or twice, but I know Almereyda and I think he’s very sensitive to Eggleston so I would trust what was on that.

So I’m kind of surprised . . .

I mean, Eggleston never explains a lot, but I think he has a complicated relationship to Walker Evans. Cartier-Bresson? No problem. He’ll talk about that, but Evans he would hem and haw and he would not like to see that repeated a lot. I think it has something to do with sort of political intentionality that’s perceived to be in Evans’ work even though that’s a thesis that’s being broken down all the time. But I think that that intentionality is something that Eggleston does not like to think about in his own work.

Then is it fair to say that Eggleston is an instinctual artist?

I think so. I think that’s fair.

And if he’s instinctual, what can viewers, and specifically younger artists, learn from him? I kind of see instinct as a gift. You have it or you don’t, and so if he’s Bill Eggleston and he’s pursuing his gift, what lessons can younger artists take away from the guy?

Well, you would think, and you can agree with this or not as a Southerner, but be very sensitive to where you are in this earth. And Eggleston, I mean, nobody had to say to him, the South is the best place. I mean, he wouldn’t even agree to that, but he was very sensitive to where he was on this earth.

So it’s similar not only to Faulkner’s entreaty to write about what you know, but R.E.M.’s accessioning of punk’s D-I-Y spirit. Quit using the fact that you’re in Athens, Georgia or Sumner, Mississippi or Memphis, Tennessee–any place not New York–as an excuse.

Oh yeah.

You’re an artist. And if you’re an artist, do it. Shut up and do it.

Yeah. And I would say, cast a loving eye. Cast a loving eye at completely horrible things, but cast a loving eye. And that’s what I think he does. He loves what he sees.

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