Film

How Photographer William Eggleston Finds His Images

The 2005 documentary William Eggleston in the Real World has been restored and re-released on home media. Far from a normal biography, it often plays like a homage to the photographer’s work.

Re-release poster for William Eggleston in the Real World (all images courtesy Grasshopper Film)

Michael Almereyda has made documentaries about artists who are singular in their own way, such as playwright-actor Sam Shepard and Blade Runner writer Hampton Fancher. His 2005 film William Eggleston in the Real World, about the famed photographer, has been restored and is being reissued on DVD and VOD via Grasshopper Film. It is simultaneously intimate and disquietingly removed, at times playing out like an homage to Eggleston rather than a straight biography of him. Notably, excerpts of Eggleston’s abandoned ‘70s foray into video, Stranded in Canton, appear throughout.

William Eggleston, “Untitled (outside Mayfield, Kentucky), 2000”

Almereyda shot most of the documentary himself on what appears to be a handheld camera. What that approach loses in image quality, it makes up for in mobility. Frequently, Almereyda will fill the frame with Eggleston’s face, one eye set in a viewfinder, looking into his own camera for just the right shot. It’s not until over 20 minutes in that we actually see any results of his work. Before then, we see essentially everything that’s not being photographed. Eggleston himself seems obsessed as he walks the streets of a small town, so consumed with getting the right shot that he bumps into a telephone pole. The spontaneity of the handheld camera contrasts brilliantly with the stillness of Eggleston’s own photographs. At times it seems as though Almereyda has immersed the viewer in an Eggleston image, and his use of video exemplifies just how rarefied the qualities of Eggleston’s work are.

Eggleston’s photographs possess a haunting stillness, and his use of dye transfer printing in his color work creates a sensation of immediacy and heightened reality. These are scenes you feel as though you could walk into, or just silently observe. His 1976 solo show at MoMA was one of the first to focus on color photography, and his work found an audience as a result. As Holland Cotter wrote in the New York Times 32 years after that show, “the images quickly became influential classics.” Eggleston has received grants from the NEA and Guggenheim Fellowship, and in 2004 he was the recipient of the Getty Images Lifetime Achievement Award — an event Almereyda features in his film.

William Eggleston, “Untitled (from Los Alamos) n.d.”

Almereyda himself provides narration, balancing commentary on Eggleston’s work (which includes a number of allusions to curator John Szarkowski’s writings on Eggleston) with anecdotes about his life and how the two of them met. The time that’s passed since the original release has changed some of the circumstances described in it. Most notably, Eggleston’s wife, Rosa Kate Dossett — who offers some of the most lucid and thoughtful commentary in the film — died in 2015. The music Eggleston plays for Almereyda on a keyboard has since seen a proper release. And Almereyda himself has curated a book of previously unpublished work by Eggleston, 2010’s For Now.

What to make of the title? Partly it might refer to the discomfiting sight of Eggleston walking about, never looking entirely comfortable with his surroundings, yet creating stunning work from those journeys. When a CVS employee tells Eggleston and Almereyda that they can’t take photos or videos in the store, the title plays like wry commentary. But Eggleston also talks about the role of dreams in his life, and of his desire to channel some of that fleeting imagery into his work. He and Almereyda argue about how best to interpret it. The result is a fascinating exploration of the impossibility of interpreting one’s vision beyond a certain point. Eggleston’s photographs are full of history and character; attempting to find a specific meaning is an effort doomed to failure.

From William Eggleston in the Real World

William Eggleston in the Real World is now available on DVD and VOD.

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