“To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi,” wrote William Faulkner, a native of the state, who suggested that “Mississippi begins in a lobby of a Memphis, Tennessee hotel and extends south to the Gulf of Mexico.” A land of great contrasts — historically, culturally and socio-economically — there is nowhere else quite like the Southern States of the USA.
The historian James C. Cobb once called the Mississippi Delta “The Most Southern Place on Earth” in his essay of the same name. It is, he wrote, “an isolated, time-warped enclave whose startling juxtaposition of white affluence and black poverty suggested the Old South legacy preserved in vivid microcosm.”
This region was once the heartland of the plantation aristocracy, not to mention the slave labour that sustained it. In 1962, James Meredith became the first African American to enrol at the University of Mississippi. Violent riots erupted, two people were killed and 75 more were injured. BBC News reported at the time that Meredith was, “escorted to his first class, a seminar on American colonial history, through a crowd of several hundred jeering students.” Six years later, Martin Luther King, Jr was assassinated just across the state border in Memphis.
Although history in the South has been marred by injustice and oppression, the area was also a hotspot for some of the country’s most esteemed artists. There was Faulkner and Tennessee Williams, but this was also the stomping ground of Elvis, Johnny Cash, Al Green and Jerry Lee Lewis, who all did the rounds between Jackson, Nashville and Memphis.
William Eggleston was born in Memphis in 1939. His family owned a cotton plantation and were once part of the elite class, and he attended the University of Mississippi around the same time as James H. Meredith. I met Eggleston in Paris, of all places. He was wearing a smart suit with a green bow-tie, his hair so freshly combed that I could still see the comb strokes. He bowed when we were introduced.
Eggleston has been taking photos of this part of the world for more than 50 years. He has documented the ‘Vanishing South’, as many have termed it — although he makes it sound much more adventitious than that. “I just photograph whatever is there.” And he really does: road signs, empty gas-stations, milk cartons, unknown characters — “Whoever he is,” says Eggleston, gesturing to an image, “I don’t remember his name.” Intentional or otherwise, through his lens he has captured the South in all its intensity, simply by photographing some of life’s most mundane moments.
In addition to being one of America’s most prolific photographers, Eggleston is also an accomplished musician. He can play almost anything on the piano and likes all music: “Starting with Bach, all the way up to the best American, and everything in between.” He doesn’t like jazz, though — “not at all.”
Eggleston’s latest book release is a trilogy called Chromes. It documents the period from 1969 to 1974, when he first started experimenting with colour. Most of the images featured in the books have never been seen before. Chromes by William Eggleston is published by Steidl.