The Big Picture: William Eggleston at Mississippi Fred McDowell’s Funeral | William Eggleston
William Eggleston, the old master of American color photography, took this photo at the funeral of Mississippi bluesman Fred McDowell in 1972. He had previously taken a photograph of McDowell in his coffin, his head wrapped in white satin. The pair had become friends after Eggleston knocked on McDowell’s door one day and asked if he could shoot footage of him playing the guitar. Here, Eggleston was at the back of the chapel, a dapper southern white man, who grew up in a plantation home, taking pictures. The young woman’s gaze seems to reflect all this oddity – Eggleston often drew such stares from strangers – and her camera doesn’t flinch at any of it.
McDowell’s film footage has been lost. When Eggleston later described it to a reporter, he said the playing resulted in “a wandering, then surges of melody”. This description could also delineate the photographer’s methods. Eggleston, now 83, changed the landscape of the American imagination with his exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1976; the companion book to this exhibition, which featured the artist’s saturated dye-transfer prints from the southern suburbs, was called Guide by William Eggleston; it has become exactly that for a generation of filmmakers and photographers in search of authentic American alienation.
This image is included in a new picture book by Eggleston, selected from 5,000 Kodachrome slides, many of them previously unseen, taken between 1970 and 1973. The Distant Lands comes with an introduction by Eggleston’s son, William Eggleston III, in which he tries to define his old man’s place in the south, as the suburbs cobbled through the story: “The subtext of what dad documented was the loss of the soul, the loss of ‘real things’, the loss of the skills to build something well,” he wrote. One way to view this image is as a memorial to that soul.