The Beautiful Mysterious
CONTRIBUTIONS FROM MISSISSIPPI ARTISTS, WRITERS, HISTORIANS AND LOCAL EXPERTS ILLUMINATE A NEW COLLECTION OF WILLIAM EGGLESTON PHOTOGRAPHS.
WRITTEN BY Sarah Hooper | Photographs provided BY © Eggleston Artistic Trust
Courtesy OF Eggleston Artistic Trust and David Zwirner
Considered by many to be the father of color photography, William Eggleston was born in Memphis and grew up in Sumner. He studied at the University of Mississippi and at Vanderbilt, though he never completed a degree. He spent most of his adult life in and around Memphis, Oxford and the Delta, where he shot his most inspired and famous collections. His subject matter is often commonplace, even unremarkable. Yet his work has inspired writers and filmmakers from Donna Tartt to Sophia Coppola.
His was the first collection of color photography shown in a major gallery, in 1976. The exhibition of 75 prints at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City received mixed reviews but solidified his prominence in the art world. It also elevated color photography as a medium.
William Ferris, a native Mississippian, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and renowned folklore historian, is a close friend and admirer of Eggleston.
“He is the most important figure in the world of photography today,” Ferris said. “He is an icon within the art world ... part of a bohemian culture. They were drawn to him like bees to a hive.”
Eggleston and Ferris met shortly after the 1976 exhibition, when Ferris was visiting Memphis over the summer. It was the beginning of a friendship that would span the next four decades and continues today.
“The Beautiful Mysterious: The Extraordinary Gaze of William Eggleston” is a collection of 55 photographs Ferris collected from Eggleston over the years. Some include handwritten notes; most were shot in the Delta and Memphis. Ferris donated his collection to the University of Mississippi Museum, where they were on exhibit from September 2016 to February 2017.
Ann Abadie of Oxford is the editor of “The Beautiful Mysterious.” She is also co-founder of the Faulkner conference and the Center for Southern Studies, has edited more than 50 collections, and despite turning 80 recently, she has no plans to slow down.
Abadie is friends with both Ferris and Eggleston. When the Friends of the Museum approached her about getting involved with a project on Eggleston, she didn’t hesitate.
“He was born a genius,”Abadie said. “It was a torment for him in some ways.”
It takes some maneuvering to extract oneself from Eggleston’s gaze. Staring into his void is like spending a moment too long too deep under water — silent, beautiful, breathless and maybe a little terrifying.
In Eggleston’s nimble hands, it is possible to find stillness, but be sure: It balances on a precipice. The viewer is a voyeur. In each shot, it appears as if something just transpired, or is imminent, and even if you should, you cannot look away.
Eggleston’s own life is a collection of stories and characters straight out of a novel. He counts among his friends the likes of Andy Warhol and musician Willie Ruff. By all accounts, he is practically a concert pianist and loves Bach and Buxtehude. He has books full of watercolors and has traveled the world.
Contributors to the book include Megan Abbott, Michael Almereyda, Kris Belden-Adams, Maude Schuyler Clay, William Dunlap, W. Ralph Eubanks, William Ferris, Marti A. Funke, Lisa Howorth, Amanda Malloy, Richard McCabe, Emily Ballew Neff, Robert Saarnio and Anne Wilkes Tucker.
The University of Mississippi Friends of the Museum supported the release of the book, which is available at the UM Museum, Square Books in Oxford and Reed’s Gum Tree Bookstore in Tupelo.