WILLIAM EGGLESTON BY DREW BARRYMORE
From V Magazine’s September 2011 issue, V73 The Heroes Issue
Photography Jason Schmidt
On-screen since infancy, Drew Barrymore has spent a lifetime migrating from her place before the lens to the position behind it. And after a decade of documenting that passage with a Pentax K1000 camera, the award-winning actress, producer, director, and photographer sat down with her hero, the legendary lensman William Eggleston, to discuss a fetish for film in an increasingly digital world and what it means to be one of a kind.
DREW BARRYMORE In 2000, this person who came through my life gave me a Pentax K1000.
WILLIAM EGGLESTON For a first camera, it’s ideal. It’s foolproof and it’s not delicate.
DB I felt like I was in a ’70s high school classroom. I banged the crap out of that camera. When were you first interested in cameras?
WE My grandfather was not at all a serious photographer, but he knew about it and experimented. I grew up in Mississippi, in what’s called the Delta, on a cotton plantation. Sometimes, maybe on the occasion of a picnic, he would take a picture of hands on the farm—they were nearly all black. But outside of those, I don’t think he took many photos. He didn’t shoot everywhere he went. My early years were all about music. I played the piano seriously. I did have a little Kodak Brownie camera, but was so disappointed with it. Everything was so sharp-looking in the viewfinder, but the prints came out all blurry. So I was never into photography until some time after my grandfather’s death, which was about 1950. I got interested in playing around with his camera in the darkroom. When I had that little Brownie, he was very much alive and very close.
DB When did it coalesce for you? Did you find the right camera? Was there a right moment?
WE I was sent off to boarding school, prep school. I had one particular best friend there who I thought was intelligent, and he and I matriculated as freshmen at Vanderbilt in Nashville. We were both interested in the same things: music, audio recordings, electricity. He was also interested in photography, and he kept asking me why I wasn’t. I told him I hated it. When we got settled in school, he came over to my room and knocked on my door and said, “Look, we’re going downtown today and we’re buying a camera.” So I bought a little Canon, good quality, and fell in love with it.
DB There she is.
WE Immediately I lost all interest in my other classes. I really stopped going to them. This was in 1957. I think I was in colleges and universities for at least five years, but I never got a degree. I just didn’t see the point in it. And the next thing I knew, all of a sudden, I was on the faculty up at Harvard—still without a degree.
DB That’s so funny.
WE Well, in the ’50s, photography was not taught. There were schools if you wanted to study fashion photography and advertising, but the kind I do—let’s just call it art photography—wasn’t taught anywhere. That’s why I was brought up to Harvard, to introduce art photography to the curriculum. I did the best I could.
DB Do you like the new-school or the old-school approach? Do you use all the toys that you can, or do you prefer just what it was, camera and film?
WE The latter. That’s enough to fool with. I don’t use, or know much about, digital. I’m pretty happy about that.
DB I’m having a hard time right now, especially as a director, because everyone wants me to embrace digital and I’ve never shot digital in photography. I just did a short film and I had to shoot it digitally because I didn’t have any money. Every time the camera broke or scanned or re-calibrated, I would be thinking I could be changing a film magazine right now. It drove me crazy.
WE I don’t know how long ago it was, but a certain point came and I adopted a personal discipline of only taking one picture of one thing. If I took a second, it was only because I was afraid of camera shake or something.
DB And doesn’t that in itself make it art?
WE I think so.
DB Because it’s one of a kind. Do you ever shoot digitally?
WE I’ve just played with it, and I could pretty much say no.
DB Would you say to someone that it’s okay to shoot on film until the end of time?
WE Absolutely I would. There are too many trillions of cameras that use film and otherwise everyone is going to start throwing them away. One shouldn’t do that.
DB How do you feel about cropping?
WE I don’t.
DB Thank you! Cheers. God bless you. There’s a part of me that feels like it’s not fair.
WE You’re right, it’s not. It’s messing with things. There’s something sinister about it. When it’s cropped that’s not you anymore. So that’s one reason I don’t do it. Another reason is just one of those personal disciplines. I might have picked it up originally from [Henri-]Cartier [Bresson], who was a fanatic of never cropping. You know, I had a meeting with him, one in particular, it was at this party in Lyon. Big event, you know. I was seated with him and a couple of women. You’ll never guess what he said to me.
WE “William, color is bullshit.” End of conversation. Not another word. And I didn’t say anything back. What can one say? I mean, I felt like saying I’ve wasted a lot of time. As this happened, I’ll tell you, I noticed across the room this really beautiful young lady, who turned out to be crazy. So I just got up, left the table, introduced myself, and I spent the rest of the evening talking to her, and she never told me color was bullshit.