OXFORD, Miss. – Through the eye of photographer William Eggleston, nothing is ordinary, despite his photographs’ apparent depiction of ordinary things and ordinary people doing ordinary things.
Eggleston once said, “I am at war with the obvious,” a phrase curators at the Metropolitan Museum of Art thought apt enough to use as the title for a 2013 exhibit of his photographs from their permanent collection.
The University of Mississippi Museum presents “The Beautiful Mysterious: The Extraordinary Gaze of William Eggleston,” an exhibit of 36 color and black-and-white photographs from the museum’s own remarkable permanent collection, including some never before exhibited.
The exhibit, sponsored by Friends of the Museum, opens Sept. 13 and runs through Jan. 14, 2017. The public is invited to an opening reception from 7 to 9 p.m. Oct. 6.
Eggleston, a Memphis native, acquired his first camera in 1957 at age 18. During his time studying art at Ole Miss, his interest in photography grew. He soon began to experiment with color negative film. Today, Eggleston is a world-renowned innovator of color photography, transforming ordinary scenes into fine art.
The University Museum owes its collection of Eggleston photographs to the generosity of Bill Ferris, scholar, author and founding director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, who personally donated them all. Ferris, a photographer and longtime friend of Eggleston, describes him as “the greatest living color photographer.”
“He is the Picasso or Faulkner of what he does,” Ferris said. “This exhibit at the museum allows everyone to know his work, which is part of the legacy of Ole Miss.”
Michael Glover, art critic for the British newspaper The Independent, agrees. His review of the 2013 opening of the permanent Eggleston installation at the Tate Modern was headlined, “Genius in colour: Why William Eggleston is the world’s greatest photographer.”
Greatest or not, art critics agree that Eggleston’s work has shaped art photography since 1976, when the Museum of Modern Art presented “William Eggleston’s Guide,” its first-ever solo exhibition of color photographs
Since that watershed exhibit, Eggleston’s work has influenced art photography and even filmmaking. Film directors citing his influence include John Huston, Gus Van Sant and David Lynch.
It was Lynch who brought Eggleston to the attention of this exhibit’s guest curator, Megan Abbott, the university’s 2013-14 John and Renée Grisham Writer in Residence and an Edgar Award-winner.
Abbott has drawn her own inspiration from his photos for many of her novels. She helped choose the pieces for the exhibit, which capture scenes from more than two decades.
“To me, his photographs evoke entire worlds, not worlds we merely see, but worlds we feel, smell, touch,” she said. “When you look long enough at his photographs, like the gorgeous, lonely blue parking lot chosen as one of the exhibit’s central images, you get lost in it. You’re in another place.”
Acclaimed photographer, first cousin and Eggleston protege Maude Schulyer Clay served as consulting adviser for the exhibit. Last year, German photo book publisher Steidl produced a collection of Clay’s portraits titled “Mississippi History.” Steidl discovered her photographs while working with Eggleston on the multi-volume set “Chrome“ (2011) and “Los Alamos Revisited“ (2012).
In conjunction with the exhibit, the museum will host a symposium Oct. 7 at the Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics, with discussion panels at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. The morning panel will include Megan Abbott, Bill Ferris and Maude Schuyler Clay, and will be moderated by author Lisa Howorth. The afternoon panel will feature Emily B. Neff, executive director of the Memphis Brooks Museum; Richard McCabe, curator of photography at the Ogden Museum of Art; and UM art historian Kris Belden-Adams.
The University Museum, at the corner of University Avenue and Fifth Street, is open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays. For more information, go to http://museum.olemiss.edu/ or follow the museum on Twitter and Instagram at @ummuseum and on Facebook.