“I am at war with the obvious.”
–William Eggleston

The writer Stanley Booth exposed me to William Eggleston’s photography in 1987. Booth met Eggleston in the late 1960s. They spent a considerable amount of time together in Memphis. In 1992, Booth used an Eggleston photograph for the hardback edition of his second book, Rythm Oil.  I bought William Eggleston’s three volume collection The Outlands in early 2022 with sheer excitement. I revisited this inimitable compilation yesterday and decided to make note of its brilliance. 

William Eggleston, 83, earned the title “Father of Color Photography” decades ago. Born in Memphis, Eggleston grew up in Sumner, Mississippi, and took his first photograph when he was around 10 with a Brownie Hawkeye camera. Eggleston attended Vanderbilt University, Delta State College and Ole Miss without earning a degree. While at Vanderbilt, a friend gifted Eggleston a Leica camera, and soon he discovered the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Eventually, Eggleston moved back to Memphis. Like his early influence, Cartier-Bresson, Eggleston’s work inspires awe and unease in other photographers: awe inspired by the work’s immense beauty and unease born of intimidation. However, Eggleston endured his share of criticism.

In 1999, Booth wrote, “When I first knew Eggleston, one occasionally heard the word ‘dilettante” used to describe him, simply because one man isn’t supposed to know about music, firearms, sound systems, television set construction and art. Eggleston’s strict low-key aesthetic kept him from becoming a household name overnight. Seekers of romance can find it in his work, but only with an investment of effort that such seekers, whether housewives or New York Times critics, are rarely willing to make.” 

Eggleston and his late wife, Rosa (to whom The Outlands is dedicated) befriended an older couple, whose son was Alex Chilton. Chilton made waves with his bands the Box Tops and Big Star. Eggleston’s photography graces album covers for Big Star’s Radio City, Alex Chilton’s Like Flies on Sherbert, The Derek Trucks Band’s Soul Serenade, Jimmy Eat World’s Bleed American and Primal Scream’s Give Out But Don’t Give Up. Eggleston’s photographic accomplishments remain iconic.

Eggleston collections include: William Eggleston’s Guide, Election Eve, The Democratic Forest, Faulkner’s Mississippi, Los Alamos revisited, Chromes, Before Color, Paris and Ancient and Modern. Eudora Welty wrote about Eggleston’s photographs in her Introduction to The Democratic Forest

“They focus on the mundane world. But no subject is fuller of implications than the mundane world! When you see what the mundane world so openly and multitudinously affirms, there is everything left to say. Mr. Eggleston’s camera brings it forth. His fine and scrupulous photographs achieve beauty. All that they have to tell us, in all their variety, reaches us through the beauty of the work.”

Steidl published The Outlands and its 405 Eggleston color photographs in September of 2021. The Outlands comprise photographs that William Eggleston made on color transparency film from 1969 to 1974, which formed the basis for John Szarkowski’s seminal exhibition of Eggleston’s work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1976 with the accompanying book William Eggleston’s Guide. The Outlands’ images are accompanied by text authored by Mark Holborn, William Eggleston III, and Winston Eggleston. Besides a couple of alternate versions, none of the photographs in The Outlands have been previously published. 

Every image glows like some electric vision.  Eggleston’s son William wrote in The Outlands Introduction: “These volumes embrace that intensity along with everything else in the history of Dad’s work. They represent an orchestration of the beginning and a transcendent finale. My journey with this work has been a great gift which coincides with mine to Dad from a loving son.” 

Eggleston captures an essence of the 1970s in these pages. The vintage cars alone evoke time travel. The Outlands contain revelatory images of ordinary Memphis environs such as gas stations, barber shops, barbecue joints, abandoned storefronts, nightclubs, beer signs, drive-ins, billiard parlors, churches, cemeteries, bus stations, rural highways, shotgun shacks, liquor stores as well as his wife, children, friends and strangers. The Outlands exhibits pure magic.

Booth wrote of his friend: “His influence might be compared to Hemingway’s: He changed everything, but nobody can really emulate him. His subject matter is too unpredictable, his compositional sense too unerring.” In 1995, Marc Smirnoff asked Eggleston to describe any message his photographs contained, to which the photographer replied: “I guess the message is: Art really does exist, whether we like it or not.”


Stanley Booth Dancing with the Devil

Jim Dickinson’s Favorite Food, Film & Music

(All Photographs by William Eggleston from The Outlands)