William Eggleston and the sound of silence

22 July 2016

Introducing Rakewell, Apollo’s wandering eye on the art world. Look out for regular posts taking a rakish perspective on art and museum stories.

Few interviewers have come away from talking to the photographer William Eggleston without summing him up ‘laconic’ or ‘taciturn’, so his appearance at the National Portrait Gallery last night came as no surprise. To mark the opening of ‘William Eggleston: Portraits’, the photographer was in conversation with Sean O’Hagan, the photography critic of the Guardian (in the chair) and Philip Prodger, who had curated the show.

‘In conversation’ might be an exaggeration, as Eggleston gave an hour-long masterclass in how to control interviewers and an audience through the careful deployment of short answers and long pauses. On more than one occasion, the Rake felt glad that Eggleston’s interlocutors, who showed grace under pressure at all times, as well as a deep knowledge of his work, at least had each other…

Some sample exchanges:

Q: Were you surprised when we approached you to put together an exhibition of your portraits?
A: Quite.

Q: I take it you’re happy with the results?
A: Quite.

Q: Do the prints ever surprise you?
A: No…maybe they should.

Q: Who are the painters that have influenced you?
A: It’s a long list.

On his opinion of Andy Warhol:
‘Oh, I don’t know what to say…’

On his opinion of Andy Warhol’s work:
‘I wouldn’t be doing it myself.’

On his commission (from Priscilla Presley) to photograph Graceland in 1984 – and whether Elvis Presley had been important to him.

‘I was not an Elvis fan. Period.’

Eggleston was clearly having fun – he was smiling broadly by the time the event was over. And with his combatively inscrutable answers, he seemed to prompt members of the audience who were brave enough to ask questions into asking actual questions. (No ‘this is more of an observation than a question’ at this Q&A!) More taciturnity abounded:

Q: Do you ever crop? Or is it perfect in the viewfinder?’
A: No.

Q: What advice would you give to your younger self if you were starting out now?A: I would say I am not the one to ask.

Q: Tell us about your relationship with Stephen Shore?
A: We were friends.

Finally, someone asked Eggleston for his impression of contemporary photography, particularly portrait photography: ‘No comment.’ And when Philip Prodger asked if this lack of comment was a form of politeness, Eggleston doubled down: ‘I am saying no comment.’ The End.

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One comment

  1. Sean O'Hagan Jul 26 2016 at 1:28 pm

    Incredibly selective. He spoke at length in response to many questions. If you know anything about Eggleston, it was an expansive interview. This misrepresents it somewhat.
    Sean O’Hagan

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