It’s difficult today to conceive of how William Eggleston’s photography was once considered controversial—he documented everyday scenes that, through his eyes, became vivid and surreal. The luridness of his color—and the very fact that he worked in color—provoked a rejection of his work in certain very, very serious artperson circles, but those lurid colors were essential to his work’s effectiveness. He intentionally used the most saturated process available at the time—the dye transfer—to achieve the eye-bleedy reds that practically became his trademark. And in 1976, a solo exhibit at MoMA by the self taught Memphis-based shooter William Eggleston, titled “Color Photographs,” turned American photography on its ear.
Like Eggleston, that great legend among influential but underachieving American rock bands Big Star hailed from Memphis, TN. And their connection to the photographer wasn’t just geographical—not only did his photo “The Red Ceiling” appear on the cover of that band’s 1974 LP Radio City, a candid portrait he shot of the band adorns the back cover.
It wasn’t very hard for the band to score that coup—Eggleston was a family friend to the band’s singer/guitarist Alex Chilton, and accordingly, thirty Eggleston shots appear in the band’s first ever photo-monograph, the forthcoming Big Star—Isolated in the Light, to be published in October by First Third Books. According to Big Star’s bassist Andy Hummel (RIP 2010), quoted in the book from a 2001 interview by Jason Gross originally appearing in Perfect Sound Forever,
Alex knew Bill Eggleston through his parents I believe. His mother was an art dealer and Bill, of course was a very gifted local photographer. Bill was a major hell raiser, as were Alex and me at the time. We drank a lot, stayed out all night, and took all manner of drugs. Somehow we got hooked up with him and Alex talked him into doing the cover [of Radio City]. I could go on and on about Bill’s techniques and all, which were truly innovative and brilliant, and which I kind of made note of, being very much into photography myself, but I’m sure there are lots of books available that deal with all that now that he’s world famous and all. But we wound up at the TGI Friday’s on Overton Square one Monday night, which was “Rock’n’Roll Night.” It was a major hell-raising scene in those days. A DJ would play old 45’s and just everyone came and stuffed the place. That was the back cover. Then we went over to Bill’s later on and he suggested the light on the ceiling pic, which he had previously taken. We all loved it and I thought it fit perfectly with the sort of avant-garde nature of the LP.
A close friend of the band, Michael O’Brien, has since become a highly reputable photographer himself, noted for portraiture and documentia; he’s published three monographs, The Face of Texas, The Great Minds of Investing, and the book of his most likely to be of interest to DM readers, Hard Ground, which pairs portraits of homeless subjects with poetry by Tom Waits. In Isolated in the Light, he recalls how his exposure (no pun) to Eggleston via their mutual association with Big Star altered the course of his life.
I remember hearing tales from Alex about this mysterious and eccentric photographer, William Eggleston, who was a friend of the Chilton family. I may have seen him at Alex’s house before – perhaps at the famous New Year’s Eve party that Alex’s parents threw each year – but my first definite memory was when I was becoming interested in photography and Alex suggested we drop by Eggleston’s house on Central Ave.
Shy, introverted and avoidant, I tried to change Alex’s mind but to no avail. In no time we were sitting in Eggleston’s living room. At least we were in a group and I wouldn’t stand out. A patrician, sharply intelligent Eggleston led the conversation. I lurked on the periphery and saw a copy of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s The Decisive Moment on the coffee table. Quickly I picked up the book and hid behind its pages. It was my first exposure to the French photographer’s work. I thumbed through the images. Boom! It hit me; this is exactly what I wanted to do.
Looking at Eggleston’s images of Big Star, I think back to Memphis in the 1970s. There was such a confluence of artistic energy thriving on the fringes of this Deep South provincial town. Now, with the benefit of years, I see how Big Star was the commonality… the force that energized the photographers, the recording engineers, and fans. We all had our own voice but Big Star energized us.
The image [below] of Andy, Jody and Alex – it’s such a perfect Eggleston image, recording the scene’s convulsive color and fragmented pattern! It’s like a volcanic eruption–the draperies, Andy’s shirt, Jody’s jacket, even the little watchband against Alex’s shirt. All the colors are assaulting one another – nothing is in concert – yet, the image is a perfect document.
Big Star—Isolated in the Light features photography not just from Eggleston, but from O’Brien, that great documenter of the people of the Mississippi Delta Maude Schuyler Clay, David Bell (brother of Big Star Guitarist Chris Bell), and even Andy Hummel, among others. All photos were restored from original negatives, transparencies and prints. The book features interviews with the photographers, musicians influenced by Big Star including members of This Mortal Coil, the Posies, and The Pixies, and with the sole living member of Big Star, drummer Jody Stephens.
Clicking on all the images in this post—apart from the album art—will reveal a higher-res version.
Eggleston and Jody Stephens
More after the jump…