In the corner of the living room in William Eggleston’s colourful Memphis apartment sits a grand Bösendorfer piano. “Bach is my greatest hero,” says the acclaimed photographer, dressed in a suit tailored for him on Savile Row, an untied bow tie – a signature look – and a Cartier watch. “These days I often wake up in the middle of the night and play by memory.”
Eggleston is no stranger to late nights. Widely regarded as the godfather of colour photography, in the late 1970s and 1980s he was almost as famous for his love of bourbon and women as for his distinctive images, spending time with the Andy Warhol crowd, as well as the likes of Patti Smith and Lou Reed (“Those were great days!”). Today the 77-year-old doesn’t spend much time in bars. A sign outside his apartment instructs guests that they are forbidden from bringing in extra booze; Eggleston is on a strictly rationed regimen of alcohol. “My bourbon doesn’t come until six,” he says cheerfully when monocle visits, choosing to drink water and smoke American Spirits instead.
Sitting at his piano he reminisces about his long career. His impeccable southern manners and fervour for his work – he still shoots photographs every day and plays the piano for hours on end – belies his erstwhile wild reputation. That is until he confesses that: “I can take a photograph when I’m a little fuzzy, hungover. That’s when your brain doesn’t think as much. But after two drinks, the brain doesn’t connect at all.”
He wasn’t too bothered when critics denounced his 1976 exhibition at New York’s Moma, where he introduced his colourful images as a new art form. Even his friend and idol, the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, wasn’t a fan. “We were at this big party and he looked straight at me and said, ‘Colour is bullshit, William.’ I said, ‘Well I guess I’ve wasted a lot of time then Henri!’ I didn’t care one bit.” He adds, lighting another American Spirit, “I knew people would catch up eventually.”