Dear Mr. Eggleston
You took a photograph—or so I have long imagined—of my father’s 1965 Mustang. I saw it—when? Late ’90s sometime. I was a graduate student at the University of Virginia, working in the art and architecture library, re-shelving oversized photography books, “quartos” as they’re called. It was a “mindless” job, as I have heard people say of such low-wage employment, but those are the best ones for arty types, types like us, because you have time to think, create, construct little universes of character and fantasy and argument and attempted insight, all while shuffling through a task, any task, your thoughts a blank to anyone looking your way. A kind of action against commerce, making you blessedly useless and free in thought.
Maybe you had jobs like this before—dreaming jobs, you know, as a bellhop or a security guard or a library worker or a parking lot attendant. I bet you were a photographer before you were a photographer. And I think I was a writer before I was a writer. As a kid, I used to float around on the edge of life, watching people, looking at trains and traffic and school buses and vending machines and tipped-over trash cans and graffiti on closed-down restaurant walls and dented cars hitched up to tow trucks and rust-coated iron banisters and empty bleachers and paint-chipped radiators—the kind of day-to-day wonders you photographed. And I was always watching them, and feeling a little sad about both the beauty and the temporality of things, the forward flight of time, the unstoppable process of decay, our short moment here.
I still float around. I don’t write to dream; I write to stop dreaming, to be more present. To tell my way toward clarity. I think I would be a writer even if I didn’t write. I’d have that observational inclination towards the ordinary—that open-mouthed stare at unprocessed existence going by. I write mostly for the process—of looking, thinking, naming, discovering. I think this is why many who might loosely be called documentarians—essayists, memoirists, literary journalists, photographers, nonfiction filmmakers, even biographical or documentary fiction writers—do what we do. We have an obsessive interest in presenting and pondering ordinary life, the day-to-day flow of things.
I bet you take photographs—of a light bulb in a red ceiling, a dinner table just before people sit down to eat, an old man sitting on a bed and holding a pistol, a rusty tricycle—not to dream but to come out of a dream. To say This is, this right here is absolutely real in space and time, irreducible and ineluctable, and I witnessed it and I captured it; I lived deeply inside of this particular now.
But you didn’t say much about your photographs, as far as I know. I read this quote from you in the London Observer online archives this morning: “A picture is what it is, and I’ve never noticed that it helps to talk about them, or answer specific questions about them, much less volunteer information in words. It wouldn’t make any sense to explain them. Kind of diminishes them. People always want to know when something was taken, where it was taken, and, God knows, why it was taken. It gets really ridiculous. I mean, they’re right there, whatever they are.” So I’m certainly not going to try to explain your photograph to you; rather, I hope you’ll keep reading as I explain how your photograph means to me.
That day in the UVA art and architecture library, I’d heard of you—William Eggleston—because your photographs were on the album covers of Big Star and Primal Scream records, and I knew you were an important artist and a Southerner, so I stopped when I had several of your books in my hands. I have 2 ¼ here on the desk.
What struck me, as I was flipping through, or struck me first, and struck me as if I were a giant bell, was the red Mustang on the cover of the book. I swear to God it’s my dad’s—in a littered parking lot, which is the parking lot, in my mind, of the old Sears (now long gone) across from the Hampton Coliseum, in Tidewater, Virginia, which is right on the edge of Interstate 64, perched there like a concrete spaceship out of fuel, so perhaps you’ve seen it if you’ve motored through that part of the country. It’s a place mainly and dubiously famous for epic, drug-drenched Grateful Dead shows.
I am looking at your photograph. It is dusk, or just before, all the shadows dropping, elongated, from the left—so we’re facing north. Half of the scene, framed in such a painterly fashion, is white-blue sky, and this sky, as I look again now, fascinates me because it is robin’s-egg blue up high, toward the edges of the tableau, but it fades to hot white just above the vehicles, and it brings a kind of late summer heat into my thinking, and here is the Datsun pickup (I tap the page), the large Oldsmobile (I tap the page), the camper (I tap the page), the Chryslers and Fords (I tap the page)—and not one of these cars is still on the road. So there is, for me, that melancholy sense of a remembrance of things past, things gone. I feel the heat of that evening. I smell hot asphalt and the faintest trace of gasoline. Traffic sound. Birds. Country music on a distant car radio.
I’m five, and you took this photograph while kneeling, camera at taillight level, so it is through my eyes, or so I imagine, that you seem to have been seeing life. I’m holding my father’s hand, and here is his rough palm, the tight grip, which is a thing he does (did)—this squeeze, I mean—because he doesn’t want to lose me in the lot, or let me trail behind for a car to hit, to crunch over my bones with its tires. I walk between the cars. I kick that paper cup there. I let my eyes focus on the cigarette butts as I pass over them like a plane over people (air through closed lips the sound of an engine), to see if they are my dad’s brand, Camel Lights, and I’m thinking that if I see one I’ll maybe pick it up and smell it to make sure it smells like my dad.
Something else I notice is that the asphalt around me, gray and blue with a touch of brown usually, is peach in this late light, a strange, beautiful peach, which transforms the filth of the lot into a dreamscape. (How many streets in the South are called Peach Street, Peach Road, Peach Avenue?) We wait, my father and I, in this swath of peach, this dreamscape, this memory, just at the edge of the car line in your picture—Sears, in my mind, is out of view to the right—and he says, “Okay, Gregory Peck,” which is what he calls me when he is happy—it’s what everybody in my family calls me sometimes, though I barely know Peck is a famous actor at this age, or, for that matter, what “famous” and “actor” even mean.
“Now we go,” my dead father says. And as he says this—pardon me in advance for telling you—he lets out a splattering fart, loud enough to embarrass us and make us look around the lot, as if we’ve mischievously set off a firecracker. And I look back at my dad’s car, the best thing he ever owned—man, he loved that car! And when I hold your photograph, as I am doing now, I’m looking at our car in the Sears parking lot in 1976, and time has collapsed, there is no now and then, only this transitive, shifting place of memory, and life and representation and what it can mean get mixed up, and everything is a little more real than real, and you’re helping me to hold my dead father’s hand, and I’m holding it tightly, holding it now, and he’s just let one rip, and it still hangs in the air in sound and smell, and our moment of heightened awareness crumbles into laughing, laughing until tears come, and this laughing, because of a fart, is the purest expression of our love I know, captured, transformed, transferred through time, sparked into a memory, and re-imagined into new life. I was there. You made a photograph. And I was there again. What magic is worth believing in if not that, Mr. Eggleston?
Greg Bottoms is the author of six books, including the memoir Angelhead (U. of Chicago Press), the recent essay collection Spiritual American Trash: Portraits from the Margins of Art and Faith (Counterpoint Press), and Pitiful Criminals (Counterpoint Press), a graphic collection of memoirs and stories, with drawings by artist W. David Powell. He teaches creative writing at the University of Vermont, where he is Professor of English.