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Arts / Museums

An Afternoon With America’s Greatest Living Photographer

Barbecue, Bourbon and Lessons on the Deep South

BY Chris Akin // 03.03.16

Houston-based photographer Chris Akin shares a deeply personal story detailing a pilgrimage he undertook in May 2014, to meet one of the world’s pioneers of color photography — William Eggleston. Over tumblers of whiskey and barbecue sandwiches in an apartment in Memphis, Akin meets his personal hero, who in turns inspires a new series of photography.

It began with a conversation I had with Walter Hopps [founding director of The Menil Collection]. I’ve worked at The Menil Collection for 18 years in a variety of roles, including switchboard operator. One day, when Walter called in, I asked him about Eggleston — he said William Eggleston and Paul Outerbridge are the two geniuses of color photography.

Walter had seen an exhibition of my photographs and a portfolio of my pictures, and encouraged me during our conservation to “take more pictures of the Deep South.” It was a perplexing statement, because I hadn’t photographed the Deep South enough to justify his use of the word “more”; nevertheless, what he said made a memorable impression.

Inspired by Eggleston’s “Election Eve” series and Walter’s statement, I decided to make a trip to the Deep South. I hoped to meet Eggleston as well, and I wrote a letter to him, expressing my interest in doing so. With the help of my friend Mari Omori, who joined me on the trip — and Joan Terry, who lives in Germantown, just outside of Memphis — we were able to arrange an initial meeting with Winston Eggleston. He showed us several portfolios, including “Coca-Cola,” “Seven,” and “Southern Suite,” and at the end, asked me, “Do you still want to meet my dad?”

I said “Yes,” of course. He suggested we arrive at Bill’s apartment around 5:45 pm, and pick up a Jumbo Bar-B-Q Sandwich Chopped Fine from Tops Bar-B-Q on the way. As Mari and I walked down the hall of his apartment building, nearing his room I noticed, fastened to the door, a nameplate with black letters on a gold background; it read, “William Eggleston.”The door was propped open in expectation of our visit — his work has always felt that way to me, that its door is propped open.

Classical music was drifting into the hallway. Bill stood up from the sofa. Mari was first inside and offered a warm greeting. Bill shook our hands affectionately. He was wearing dress slacks, a long-sleeve shirt with the slightest hint of purple, an orange bow tie wrapped under his collar but not tied, and an attractive pair of brown leather dress shoes.

After a while, we went into the kitchen — I followed Bill. He took three glasses from the cabinet and placed them on the counter, and asked me to open the freezer and put three pieces of ice in each glass. I couldn’t help but have flashes of Eggleston’s famous picture of the inside of the freezer. Though in this instance, there was only a nice and tidy ice maker, full of ice — no Tater Tots, Ice cream or beef pies.  We went back into the living room. I took a seat on a Mies van der Rohe chair, and Mari sat next to Bill on the sofa. We listened to the music and enjoyed our drinks.

I would hazard a guess and say we were drinking bourbon, which is, according to my limited research, the most popular form of American whiskey.

Joan arrived at the apartment a few minutes after Mari and I had. Joan’s husband, Michael, was at the time battling cancer — he’s cancer-free now. Their visits to MD Anderson in Houston led to Joan meeting Mari, who conducts a Shibori workshop sponsored by Collage for cancer patients and their family members. In the process of their getting to know one another, Mari mentioned our trip to the Deep South and my interest in meeting William Eggleston. Joan and Michael live in Germantown, just outside of Memphis.

Joan was crucial to arranging the meeting with Winston Eggleston at the Eggleston Artistic Trust, and hosted our stay in Germantown. After some lively conversation with Bill, Joan suggested we look at Bill’s photographs. Chromes, a three-book set and recent publication by Steidl, was sitting on the coffee table. Chromes contains early slide work made around the time Bill was working on William Eggleston’s Guide, an important work of color photography shown at MoMA and curated by John Szarkowski.

I didn’t want to sit my drink on the table. I said, “Bill,” using his nickname, “Do you have a coaster?” I wasn’t sure if I should have said instead, “Mr. Eggleston.” He didn’t respond immediately — then said, “Let me tell you something,” and for a moment I thought I was in big trouble. He reached up and pulled on his left earlobe and said, “I can’t hear anything out of this ear.” I was relieved, but still needed a coaster.

Joan was sitting to his right, and asked Bill if he had a coaster; he thought about it for a moment, and said there might be one on the piano. I walked over to the piano — it’s top was open — and found one sitting inside on the ledge just above the strings.

Bill’s assistant, Alexandra, arrived later, and Bill informed me that the work on paper behind the sofa was hers. Colorful, abstract, beautiful — brushed ink on mulberry paper —like blue flames. On the wall, next to Bill’s large flat-screen television, was a poster — a portrait of J.S. Bach – and Bill said jokingly, “I didn’t take that one.”

The television sat on an ornate gilded table, a tangle of wires draping down behind it. Bill said the table was his mother’s — it was stunning, as was the Louis XIV-style writing desk in the kitchen dining area, where Alexandra was working in front of a lovely bookshelf festooned with colorful miscellaneous items, including a ceramic parrot and a pair of pink candlesticks.

There was an orange scarf on the floor, and nearby, on the wall, behind a Japanese screen, another large work on paper by Alexandra. Bill asked me if I could move the screen to the left so that it didn’t block his view of Alexandra’s piece. A photographer’s light, hidden behind the screen, was illuminating the corner of the room. I was able to shift the orientation of the light stand, and move the screen — precarious work — but once accomplished, it was refreshing to be able to see the entirety of the piece.

Bill picked up from the coffee table the white bag we’d brought him, and said playfully, “What’s this?” It held the jumbo barbecue sandwich from Tops. Next to it was a Leica M2 and a Canon rangefinder. The Leica was beautiful; new leather had replaced the vulcanite. I looked through the viewfinders of both cameras. There was a roll of film on the table waiting to be developed. Bill noticed my Contax G2, and said, “That’s the best camera ever made. I have six of them.”

I asked about Los Alamos Revisited, and Bill said there was a copy somewhere, and suggested I look on the bookcase. I found a spiral-bound notebook that contained color copies of the series. It kept me busy for another two hours. I would mention why I liked a certain picture, or what I felt made it a great one, and he might correct me if necessary, pointing to the importance of a particular detail. I asked about a portrait of a gentleman who appears to be putting on a shirt, and Bill said, “He was a friend — he was putting it on so I could take his picture.” Bill caught him before he had a chance to button it up.

Mari, an artist and sculptor originally from Japan, was sitting next to Bill, conversing with him about Japan and other things, and noticed the letter I had written to him.  It was there on the coffee table. In it I described my admiration for his work and my interest in meeting him. “It was sincerely written,” Bill said.

The time went by quickly, though we were there for four hours. In retrospect, I marvel that Bill was able to sit on the sofa so patiently, making comments now and then.  For someone who has accomplished so much, he knows how to be still. As we left, he shook our hands graciously. I asked if I could visit him again, and he answered, “Anytime.”

Honestly, I can’t think of a better way to inaugurate a photographic journey through the South than to have drinks with Bill.

And a footnote: Of course, I couldn’t help but include on the itinerary the sites in Alabama that William Christenberry — another one of my heroes — has photographed, which are specific in terms of their subject matter. The Green Warehouse in Newbern, or the China Grove Church in the Talladega National Forest, for example. I met Christenberry at the Menil in 2008 during the opening of ‘Vivid Vernacular’ — curated by Clare Elliott – which included works by Christenberry, Eggleston, and Walker Evans. I was captivated by Christenberry’s storytelling, as well as his friendly demeanor.

As I prepared for the trip, I enjoyed researching the literature for relevant clues necessary to locate some of Christenberry’s favorite subjects. With a 6×7 Pentax, I documented a number of them, including Pickensville Church, the Green Warehouse, China Grove Church, Moundville, a building in Warsaw similar to his Building with False Brick Siding, Sprott Church, Springhill Cemetery and the cotton warehouse in Greensboro, Alabama, across the street from the Bar-B-Q Inn, near Barry’s Place.

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