Perfectly Boring

By  |  March 13, 2018
Untitled (The photographer with T. C. Boring, Greenwood, Mississippi, ca. 1974) by William Eggleston © Eggleston Artistic Trust, courtesy of David Zwirner Untitled (The photographer with T. C. Boring, Greenwood, Mississippi, ca. 1974) by William Eggleston © Eggleston Artistic Trust, courtesy of David Zwirner

Mississippi, murder, and William Eggleston’s “Red Ceiling”


 

William Eggleston first tried peyote one summer in the early 1960s while visiting a friend in Oxford, Mississippi. You can find the story in a memoir by University of Mississippi football star (and later Dark Shadows actor) Jimmy Hall, who was there at the time. Eggleston had invited Hall to join him and his friend, and the three men puzzled over the green-blue cactus in its cardboard box, purchased via mail-order from a nursery in Laredo, Texas. 

They ate it straight, stripping off the spines and skin and chewing it to a pulp, washing down the bitter taste with ouzo and cigarettes. They also brewed it into tea. Before long, the effects began to reveal themselves. For a time they sat in silence, enjoying a comfortable introspection. They laughed a little, too. The third friend quoted Allen Ginsberg and clapped off beat. Inspired, Hall leapt up off the couch and danced his version of a Ghost Dance. After a while, he noticed Eggleston sitting very still and staring at him with an obscure, stony concentration. Hall asked what he was looking at. 

“You,” Eggleston said. “You are pulsating red.” 

Keeping his solemn expression, Eggleston stood and announced that they should leave at once for Laredo—a thirteen-hour drive—to procure more peyote. Who could argue? They stumbled into a Buick and took off for South Texas, stopping only for gas and more cigarettes. On the way, the radio played Elvis and Bach. Eggleston was impassive as he drove; Hall marveled at his ability to navigate the vehicle in his hallucinatory state. (“Eggleston was a real traveler,” curator Walter Hopps remembered in his book The Dream Colony. “All photographers must have that—it’s inherent to the medium.”) 

Reaching the nursery in Laredo, sleepless and still disoriented, they introduced themselves to the proprietor, a middle-aged Mexican woman. They thanked her for her service and stocked up on cacti. Rather than turn around, however, Eggleston insisted on steering them across the border, where they wandered stoned around the streets of Nuevo Laredo, stopping into bars as they found them. They finally landed in a clapboard shack out in the country, eating coyote meat and nodding to a bright jukebox until they blacked out. 

Hall’s book, dubiously titled William Eggleston and Me, is full of stories like this. For all its faults—the self-aggrandizement, the egregiously unedited copy—it also provides some accidental insight into the photographer’s early career, before recognition and notoriety arrived, the period during which his sensibility must have been busily working itself into some sort of definite shape. At one point in Mexico, while still conscious, Hall asked Eggleston about that moment back in Oxford, when he saw the pulsating red. Hall wanted to know: Did he still see it? 

“There’s always some red—that’s my color,” Eggleston supposedly told him. Though he’d never seen a shade of red quite like that one, he admitted. “I’ll never forget,” he said. “It was alive like blood.” 

 

One afternoon two years ago, I drove to Memphis to see an Eggleston photograph in person. I’d been interested in the photograph, which might be his most famous, for years: a bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling in a room painted a stark, eerie red. A red room in Greenwood, Mississippi, in 1973. It had come to resemble a puzzle. And I’d noticed a quote by Eggleston, in the introduction to his book Ancient and Modern, in which he himself seemed baffled by the image: “It shocks you every time,” he’d said, adding that it was “so powerful, that in fact I’ve never seen it reproduced on the page to my satisfaction.” This was why I had decided to go to Memphis. Because I’d realized, despite having long admired the photograph, that I had never, in a certain way, actually seen it. 

The Eggleston Artistic Trust, which houses Eggleston’s archives, is on the first floor of a nondescript brick office building across the street from a high school. I was buzzed in by Eggleston’s youngest son, Winston, who ushered me past tall metal shelves and filing cabinets into his office, which was warm and dimly lit. There were contact sheets from Eggleston’s books on the walls, displaying familiar photographs in long, narrow rows—small glimpses of traffic and vernacular architecture and otherworldly Southern lawns. The room was a miniature Eggleston museum, complete with memorabilia. “I collect things that are in Dad’s photographs,” Winston told me, referring, among other things, to a haggard human skull that had appeared in his father’s mid-seventies film Stranded in Canton. 

He was busy that day. The National Portrait Gallery in London was staging an Eggleston retrospective soon, and this would involve a great deal of preparation on the part of the Trust. Selecting pictures, packaging them for the trip overseas. They were even having new prints made of some photographs, which was no small task given the rapidly decreasing availability of the materials necessary for the dye-transfer process Eggleston famously used. This was an expensive and laborious chemical procedure made more difficult—impossible, for most—after Kodak discontinued production of its matrix film and other dye-transfer materials in the 1990s. 

Since then, the family had been relying on a printer who had bought up large quantities of the remaining Kodak stock years before, freezing it for safekeeping. But his supply was dwindling. “He’s almost out,” Winston admitted. What happens then? “It’s over.” We rarely consider the fallibility of analog photography, so it was unsettling to learn that we’ve been quietly approaching a low-level extinction event. “It’s a lost art,” he said. “It’s sad, really.” 

“The Red Ceiling,” as the picture of the light bulb is often called—it has no official title—was one of the very earliest photographs Eggleston printed using the dye-transfer process. Before he started working with it, the method was associated largely with advertisements, National Geographic, and Technicolor movies. He admired the “overwhelming” vibrancy of certain cigarette ads and Hitchcock films, and saw no reason why he couldn’t incorporate that same textured color into his own work. In this, he was in the radical minority. Walker Evans had dismissed color photography as “vulgar.” Paul Strand had argued that “higher emotions couldn’t be expressed in color,” and even Robert Frank had agreed, reasoning that “black and white are the colors of photography.” Museums largely reflected this bias. 

But when Eggleston first printed “The Red Ceiling,” he saw that the result was remarkable—stranger and richer even than the color negative and Kodachrome film he’d been using since the mid-sixties. He immediately sent it to John Szarkowski, the legendary photography director at the Museum of Modern Art, who recognized its unusual genius. In the coming skirmishes over the legitimacy of color photography, the image would take on a great symbolic significance. This minor, inexplicable moment—in which a photographer had pondered a light bulb in the Mississippi Delta—would come to be understood as a shot across the bow of art-world atrophy. 

Now that Eggleston and the partisans of color have long since won that war, it’s worth wondering whether Evans, at least, might have been onto something. There is something vulgar about “The Red Ceiling.” Not only the black-light poster visible in the lower right-hand corner, a chart of sexual positions corresponding to the signs of the zodiac (a poster Walmart still sells for $11), but the photograph’s all-around decadence, its stylized obscurity. It feels unclean. Eggleston once remarked that his photographs were based, compositionally, on the Confederate flag. It was a joke, a deliberately provocative analogy, but it’s hard to look at “The Red Ceiling” and not conclude that, at least in this instance, he was right. The way the exposed white wires mark an imperfect “X” over the sinister red. Once the connection is made, it’s impossible to forget. It only adds to the sense of the taboo that lingers in the margins. The picture unfolds, and then it unfolds again. 

I asked Winston to see it, and he shrugged and said, “Sure.” He went over to a large safe in the corner of the room, fiddled with the combination briefly, and swung open the heavy door. He pulled out a series of drawers, then slid the print out of its casing. We walked to the other room, and he placed the photograph on a platform under a lamp. “Anyone who knows Eggleston’s work knows that he’s a great poet of the color red,” the novelist Donna Tartt wrote in Artforum, and here was proof. The red was unreal, or hyperreal—it seemed to drip from the print, as if the paint would smudge if touched. The picture was both conventionally beautiful and somehow aberrant, a duality Eggleston acknowledged to the editor Mark Holborn when he compared it to “a Bach exercise,” while also adding, “When you look at the dye it is like red blood that’s wet on the wall.” 

Here Eggleston hints at the flip-side to the photograph’s visual power—a disturbing relationship to the real. Red blood that’s wet on the wall. This was the other reason I had gone to Memphis. I wanted to know what had happened in that room.

100 Omni Stephenson Eggleston interiorUntitled (Greenwood, Mississippi, 1973) by William Eggleston © Eggleston Artistic Trust, courtesy of David Zwirner

 

The house in the photograph belonged to a man named Tom “T. C.” Boring, a dentist born and raised in Greenwood, whom Eggleston has described as the best friend he ever had in the world. He was the scion of a well-respected Delta family, a sharp and promising Southern archetype who glided his way through the University of Mississippi, Loyola University, and the Navy before coming home to Greenwood and gradually, ungracefully losing his mind. 

“He looked a little like Errol Flynn,” Allen Wood, a friend of Boring’s since junior high, told me, “or maybe a younger William Faulkner, with the moustache.” Boring had a penchant for exotic plants, younger women, and corn whiskey. In public, he often wore tweed suits and turtleneck sweaters, and smoked a pipe. But more often than not, he wore as little as possible; at home, he preferred to avoid clothes altogether. At the height of summer, he’d keep his air-conditioner cranked up to full blast so he could always have a fire going in his living room, for ambiance. 

He slept odd hours. He made cryptic jokes. He owned a number of iguanas. His prized possession was his pet capybara, which he’d walk around the neighborhood on a leash. “He didn’t particularly want to socialize with his social set, people he grew up with, went to college with,” Wood said. “He sort of liked the bizarre a little too much.” He took to using obscure aliases: Victor Vander, Bob Boyd. The significance of these names remained a mystery, something he kept to himself. 

Eggleston met Boring through a friend in Greenwood, and the photographer and the dentist hit it off immediately. “They related to each other so much,” Maude Schuyler Clay, Eggleston’s cousin and herself a renowned photographer, told me. “They were both a couple of iconoclastic reprobates.” They shared a skewed, ironic view of life and an absurdist set of values. They were alike in their dedication to a culture that had no use for them, that treated them like outcasts. They might hate the South for its prudishness or hypocrisy, but they couldn’t imagine leaving—not for long. This was their home. Its contempt for them only kept things interesting. That, and they both liked to drink. 

Another close friend of T.C.’s who spent a lot of time with him and Eggleston described their nights together as blurry, indeterminate parties, “mostly drinking and taking quaaludes, the two of them crawling around on the floor.” After Boring’s stint with the Navy in Korea, a psychiatrist had written him a prescription for the barbiturate Seconal, which he’d later say was the “worst goddamn thing they could do.” He soon graduated to the opiate Dilaudid, which had unfortunate contraindications with the local moonshine he preferred. “I’ve never abused in my life,” Boring tells Eggleston in a scene from Stranded in Canton. At this, Eggleston laughs audibly from behind the camera. “I mean you’re laughing about that,” Boring says, smiling, “but it’s the goddamn truth.” 

By the end of the sixties, Boring had divorced his first wife and was living with an eighteen-year-old girlfriend named Mona, whom he’d picked up at a convenience store one afternoon and somehow convinced to follow him to Greenwood. He could be persuasive in this respect. “Tom said if you wanted to pick up a woman, that you look in her eyes and see how she breathes,” one old friend told me. “And you start breathing in rhythm with ’em. Syncopated breathing. And the next thing you know they’d be in bed.” 

In his small house on MacArthur Avenue, Boring had constructed a counterculture all to himself. He painted the master bedroom a dark red. The living room largely lacked furniture, while the rest of the house was filled with broken appliances and junk. There was rarely food in the refrigerator, and the cabinets, too, were empty. Visitors to the house remember purplish lights, and the constant smell of burning incense. 

This period of Boring’s life is memorialized in the most jarring photograph included in the seminal William Eggleston’s Guide, the first solo collection of color photography ever published by the Museum of Modern Art. It’s a portrait, of sorts, of Boring in his bedroom, his bed unmade, a cigarette dangling ash from the dresser. A large oxygen tank stands propped in the corner, and you can make out a few words scrawled in black on the walls: TALLY HO! and MONA and GOD. The photo stands out bluntly among shots of dirt roads and Southern gentry: Boring standing nude and bewildered in his red room—Michelangelo’s David recast as a sordid, Southern acid freak. 

 

The house on MacArthur Avenue was not the house in “The Red Ceiling.” Just before dawn one January morning in 1970, the Greenwood Police knocked on Boring’s front door and announced that they had a search warrant. He thought it better not to answer, and so the officers kicked in the door, throwing him to the ground. In the den, they found four pounds of marijuana arranged neatly on the rug, along with the materials necessary to process it. Boring and Mona were arrested and jailed. The local newspaper account of the raid reads like tabloid anthropology—the prominent dentist, the innocent teenager, and their lurid, hippie drug lair: “A plaster cast of the rear part of a woman’s anatomy hung above the fireplace in the den,” the article reports. “A record on the phonograph was entitled The Jimi Hendrix Experience.” You get the sense that this has been a triumph for the city welfare. “We have been working on this for a long time,” Greenwood Police Chief Curtis Lary told the paper, “and patience and hard work finally paid off.” 

Boring was stripped of his dental license. “I cannot find any sympathy for you,” the judge told him in court, “a professional man who would get himself involved in marijuana.” Mona disappeared, and he moved into a new home behind his parents’ house. Friends say he had an unusually close relationship with his family, his mother in particular, and they agreed to support him during the rough patch. They promised him $30 a week and, Clay told me, “all the meat he could eat.” He soon grew back his moustache. He met someone new, Brenda, and they married and had a daughter. But Boring didn’t feel any different. If anything, he felt even more liberated than before. He took it upon himself to repaint the new house. To really settle in and make the place his own. He painted one room a solid blue and another, in what would become his accidental art-historical legacy, he painted red.

 

Just as Boring’s life was thrown into turmoil, Eggleston’s career began its swift ascent. His resilience has been noted before: his uncanny ability to outlast the most extreme outer limits of debauchery. As Winston put it, most of his father’s circle paid for their lifestyles in the end. “Except my dad,” he said. “He’s got this insane constitution.” 

If Eggleston admired and aestheticized the contrast between Southern dignity and decay, Boring embodied it. More than anything else, Boring had become Eggleston’s muse. Tav Falco, Eggleston’s first dark-room assistant (and later front man of the Memphis art-rock group Panther Burns), describes the figures his former mentor was drawn to as “personalities of huge dimensions, consumed with their times—transient, trenchant, and utterly doomed.” 

Eggleston began dividing his time between Memphis and New York City. He dated the Warhol actress Viva, who later called him, not without affection, “an exaggeration of the worst in every man.” When in town, he’d stay at her room in the Chelsea Hotel— room 714, an easy one to remember, as it was the same number stamped on the quaalude tablets then in circulation. In 1974, he was invited to teach at Harvard—a job he lost, according to Walter Hopps, after attacking a German professor with a butter knife, in a fit of drug-induced paranoia. But the bad luck never lasted. He won a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and got commissions from Rolling Stone

In 1976, the Museum of Modern Art opened a solo exhibition of his work, an unprecedented honor for a color photographer. Thus it came to be that Tom Boring’s home, lifestyle, and body were displayed on the walls of the country’s premier institution of contemporary art—objects to be interpreted or criticized, avatars of Deep South exoticism. In photos from the opening, Eggleston appears disinterested, smoking heavily and flowing through the crowd as though he hardly notices it. In his memoir, Hopps remembers Eggleston being required to give a lecture soon afterward. He stood at the lectern and shuffled through his slides one by one, never saying a word. 

The show became the photography world’s most discussed event of the year, though opinions were markedly split. John Szarkowski, the curator, wrote a rapturous tribute to these “pictures of aunts and cousins and friends, of houses in the neighborhood and in neighboring neighborhoods,” all of which appeared “as it might in a diary, where the important meanings would be not public and general but private and esoteric.” Most controversially, he wrote, “As pictures, however, they seem to me perfect.” In a notorious pan for the New York Times, Hilton Kramer took issue with this last contention. “Perfect?” he wrote. “Perfectly banal, perhaps. Perfectly boring.” 

 

Boring himself couldn’t have been less interested in his newfound art-world notoriety. He wasn’t at all compelled by this aspect of Eggleston’s life. Introduced to Leo Castelli, then the most prominent art dealer in the country—responsible for launching the careers of Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella, and many others—Boring said, “So nice to meet you, Leo, and what do you do?”

He had more immediate concerns. His second marriage, to Brenda, having disintegrated, he’d moved on to a third. (His daughter would be raised by Brenda and her new husband.) He’d recovered his license to practice dentistry but had opted to close his downtown office and see patients only at his home. His practice catered exclusively to Greenwood’s lower-income black population, which some attributed to his progressivism and others to a convoluted scheme involving Medicaid funding. 

At the start of his third marriage, he’d cut down on his drinking and general oblivion-seeking, but the reprieve was short-lived. Falco recalls visiting Boring with Eggleston one afternoon and finding him on the porch with “a tall can of beer in his underwear.” His impression was of a person “moving through advanced stages of merry, sinister psychedelia so heightened that you knew something or somebody was going to shut him down.” Boring began spending his nights at Greenwood’s black clubs, openly flouting the Delta’s still extant cultural segregation. These outings didn’t always end well. “Tom would push the envelope so far he didn’t know when to stop,” Allen Wood said. Boring often attracted police attention, and more than once ended the night banned from a club for life. 

After his third and final divorce in 1978, Boring’s home took on the atmosphere of a twenty-four-hour carnival. Teenagers stoned in his swimming pool, fights spilling out into the streets, a constant air of orgiastic depravity. The neighborhood was scandalized by rumors of bisexuality and miscegenation. Meanwhile, Boring seemed to be drifting. Even his pet capybara had abandoned him, breaking away during one of their walks and diving into the river, paddling away never to return. “He was disintegrating mentally and physically,” a close friend remembered. His conversations began to move diagonally, along meandering courses impossible to follow. He slurred his words. His smile, which had always been enigmatic, took on a quality closer to the grotesque. 

 

One night a year or so ago, at a party in Manhattan—at which I had spent most of the night awkwardly circling the room and eyeing the bookshelves—I was introduced to a film producer named Caldecott “Cotty” Chubb. One of Eggleston’s oldest friends and associates, Chubb described himself as the photographer’s longtime manager, having been entrusted with this task by the late art dealer Harry Lunn. I asked about T. C. Boring, and he laughed and gave me his business card. Let’s talk sometime, he said, and I promised I’d call. I proceeded to lose the card immediately and only recently discovered it, by accident, tucked away in the pages of the Guide. 

“I saw pictures of his before I ever met him,” Chubb told me of Eggleston, when we finally reconnected. This was before the MoMA show, before he was a known quantity in the city. Chubb had seen the pictures at the Upper East Side apartment of the writer Noel Parmentel’s girlfriend, where Eggleston had for some reason left around eight hundred photographs in an aluminum suitcase stashed in the closet. A group of friends sat on the floor and held an impromptu exhibition. “It changed the way I looked at the world,” Chubb remembered. “Photographs can look like this?” 

He and Eggleston became close and made frequent trips together to the Delta. This was during the period of Boring’s dissipation: Chubb recalled once, in Greenwood, seeing Boring encounter his childhood nursemaid, who was so heartbroken at his drunken state that she took off her shoe and hit him over the head with it repeatedly. “Knocked him flat,” he said. One year, Chubb invited the two men to have Thanksgiving dinner in New Jersey, where what he calls his “old-fashioned, WASP family” lived on a farm. “I thought it would be amusing, and it was,” he said. They arrived stoned on quaaludes or Percocets—he can’t recall which—and didn’t touch the food. Chubb’s parents tried gamely to engage them in conversation. His mother told Eggleston about the deer that had become pests, eating the yew bushes in their front lawn. Eggleston, trying to be helpful, said, “Why don’t you just take a .45 and shoot them in the head?” She demurred politely. Boring, meanwhile, charmed them with ease. As they were leaving, Chubb’s mother said, “It’s been lovely to meet you, Mr. Boring. Will you be staying in New York long?” 

“Oh no, ma’am, I’m sorry,” he replied, “I have to go to Mississippi tomorrow to go to prison.” 

 

In 1980, Eggleston and Chubb flew to Africa. Among other things, the trip imprinted on the photographer images of fire and great, primordial chaos. “When I got back from Kenya, it dawned on me that everything I was seeing was the result of violent volcanic activity aeons ago,” he remembered later. “I tried to imagine what it was like when those fireballs were coming hundreds of miles. It must have been a hell of an event.” 

One Friday night that May, as recounted on the front page of the next morning’s Greenwood Commonwealth, two teenagers were driving down Greenwood’s West Park Avenue when they noticed a fireball in the sky above the small Mississippi town. They turned the corner down Virginia Street and found T. C. Boring’s house engulfed in flames. The fire department arrived and pumped ten thousand gallons of water onto the building, which nevertheless was reduced to an ashen ruin. Boring’s body was found on the floor by his bedroom. His head was on a pillow. Greenwood’s new chief of police, James Stevens, told the paper that the damage was “bad enough to cause death” but took care to note that “his moustache was not burned off.” 

Boring’s death didn’t exactly send shockwaves through the town. Morbidly, it had long been viewed as a foregone conclusion. “Everybody knew Tom was going to come to some sort of a bad end,” Wood told me. “He wasn’t going to live to be ninety and die with a family all around him, with a priest giving him the last rites.” The Greenwood Police, too, didn’t overexert themselves in the aftermath of the fire. “The police didn’t do any damn thing to try to find out what happened; it was more like good riddance,” Clay said. “I wouldn’t say it was a sanctioned death, but I don’t think anybody really cared.” 

The city’s indifference to Boring’s death should have been complicated by the fact that the fire didn’t appear to have been an accident. But this didn’t inspire much concern. “That investigation, when Tom died,” Wood said, “was about the shortest one in the history of the Greenwood Police Department.” There were many theories. He was murdered by racists, disgusted by his affection for the black community. He was attacked by a father, as revenge for the corruption of his daughter. Maybe a drug deal had gone bad? There were even whispers that a former girlfriend’s father was a principal in the Louisiana Mafia. The standard police inquiry—did the victim have any enemies?—was rendered comical in this context. As Wood put it, “There were any number of people who said they were going to kill him.” 

I sent off for Boring’s death certificate. “Smoke inhalation” was listed as one cause of death, but under “other significant conditions,” it cited “right temporal skull fractures and multiple cerebral contusions.” There was suspicious “skull trauma” that was “pending investigation.” On the back of the certificate, the coroner had recorded his personal impressions: “Since the deceased had sustained head trauma before the fire, I think the fire was probably intentionally set to try and cancel or disguise a homicide.” 

One day last summer I spoke to a woman who had once been close to Boring. She hadn’t thought much about him lately and seemed to find the reminiscing more painful than pleasant. But at the end of our conversation, she shared a story she thought might interest me. Two men had been arrested for another murder in Greenwood two years after Boring’s; they were convicted and are still in prison today. But when the Greenwood Police spoke to the sister of the victim, they supposedly told her they had reason to believe these men had also been responsible for Boring’s killing. When I contacted the sister, she responded graciously but firmly: She didn’t want to discuss it. “Bad memories from a long time ago,” she wrote in an email, leaving it at that. 

I called the Greenwood Police Department and asked for copies of their records on Boring’s death. After some initial confusion, I was transferred to the oldest person on staff, a Captain Andrews, who had some vague memories of the event. “Just about anybody that worked that case is retired and gone,” he told me. I asked about the manner of death—I’d heard a rumor he’d been killed with an axe. “As far as I know, I think he was bludgeoned, and I think the house was set on fire. No suspect was ever developed.” I asked if they could send me the case file. He considered it for a moment, then said, “Those records were destroyed in, I think, a fire.” 

 

“The more empty the photograph,” Luc Sante writes in Evidence, “the more it will imply horror.” Eggleston’s image of the red ceiling is a case in point. It has become one of his most emblematic works: In 1974 alone it was on the cover both of his first portfolio of dye-transfer prints (14 Pictures) and of the album Radio City by Big Star, which is where I first saw it, decades later. “It was just accepted as a masterpiece,” Chubb told me, “a signature picture, an icon.” But whatever else the photo represents, it is also an image of a certain kind of horror, a crime scene photograph of a crime that hasn’t happened yet. (“Whether or not the subject is already dead,” as Roland Barthes put it, “every photograph is this catastrophe.”) The emptiness of the photograph is acute and deafening. 

There still remained at least one person I hadn’t spoken to about “The Red Ceiling”: the photographer. At seventy-eight, William Eggleston lives in one of the South’s most elegant residential hotels, a century-old building overlooking Memphis’s Overton Park. There’s a lore to meeting him, one I considered as I rode the elevator up to his floor. In the eighties, he once greeted a Newsweek writer at the door with a revolver in one hand. When a reporter from Vanity Fair came to profile him years later, Eggleston made him take special precautions, as, “There are two bench warrants out for my arrest.” 

But Eggleston also has a reputation for being soft-spoken, almost unnervingly so, and this was how I found him—unarmed and in a warm mood. He was reclining on the couch in his suite, dressed in a cleanly pressed white shirt, chain-smoking, and drinking his daily ration of whiskey. His wife, Rosa, had passed away recently, and he’s lived alone ever since. He has to be physically careful; he’d broken his neck in a fall a few years before, and the doctors told him he couldn’t afford another accident like it. A sign on the apartment door warned visitors against trying to provoke him into old habits: IF YOU BRING ADDITIONAL ALCOHOL INTO THIS APARTMENT, YOU ARE PLACING HIM IN MORTAL DANGER.

After a few minutes of small talk, I brought up T. C. Boring, and he seemed bemused to hear the name. I showed him the nude portrait from the Guide, and his eyes lit up with something like nostalgia or admiration. What did the photograph make him think of? “I just think about what great friends we were,” he said. “He was a perfect gentleman. Well-dressed, impeccable manners, a Southern gentleman.” I pointed out that, in most of the photos I’d seen, he wasn’t dressed at all. “It was sort of this way,” he said slowly. “At will, like a chameleon, T.C. could become a different thing. He was an alien.” He paused, before adding, “To them, he was an alien. Not to me.” 

He said he wasn’t sure he could help me. “The murder is an unresolved mystery,” he said. “No one knows who did it, why they did it. I found out about it a couple of weeks later. I spoke with different people that both of us knew and nobody seemed to know a damn thing about it, not one damn thing.” He shook his head and lit another cigarette. “My deceased friend T. C. Boring,” he repeated. “I don’t know what I could tell you.” 

In his presence, Eggleston’s digressions don’t seem like digressions. They seem like natural extensions of a submerged conversation you should have been having all along but which only he recognized as such. This was my sense, at least, when he appeared to change the subject. “In the realm of art very little is possible or truly probable,” he said. “I’m quoting what I know about quantum electrodynamics. This is something worth remembering, from me to you: The end result of the endeavor is not something singularly accurate; on the other hand, it’s something probable.” He clinked the ice in his glass unhappily, noting it was nearly empty. It occurred to me that perhaps he hadn’t changed the subject after all. “I’m talking nonsense, of course.” He laughed. “Then again, it really isn’t. You must have picked up I’m quite into the advanced study of physics.” 

From there the night veered comfortably off course. Eggleston spent a half hour playing Robert Burns pieces on his seven-foot Bösendorfer grand piano. He insisted we watch the entirety of the David Byrne film True Stories, which he hadn’t thought about since he visited the set in 1986. Periodically, in the middle of some speech or another, he waved his cigarette in the direction of a framed portrait of Bach, whom he referred to as “The Master.” Most of all, he spoke adoringly about the other close friends he’d lost over the years: Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand, Eudora Welty—the last of whom had written a moving appreciation of his work in her introduction to the original edition of The Democratic Forest. I think of it often when I look at his pictures, her idea that they “succeed in showing us the grain of the present, like the cross-section of a tree.” 

As the night wore on, Eggleston grew less and less coherent, as his family had prepared me to expect. He grew more despondent, too. At one point, he changed the subject again—or not?—to relay something he’d learned that morning from the housekeeper. “A man last night committed suicide here,” he said, lying back down on the couch. “He’d been abandoned by his family, and he was a big drinker, too. So he downed a whole bottle of sleeping pills and chased them with strychnine. A very nice man, about sixty years old. Nobody gave a shit about him.” He tried standing, then gave up and lay back down. “Things in life are not always so pleasant.” 

As if remembering why I’d come, our conversation looped back to “The Red Ceiling.” I’d worried he might have forgotten the details, given that it was one shot out of thousands over the course of his lifetime. But he asked to look at it again, and lit another cigarette. I handed him a copy of a book I’d brought. He grinned strangely. “Brenda and T.C. and I were the three people who were lying in bed when I took that picture,” he said. So he did remember that day? “Of course,” he said. “Yes. We were just having a nice time, talking about this and that, talking about nonsense. The three of us lying there in bed—it was a big bed. And I remember one split second I looked up. I thought, that’s a great picture. And then I took the picture. After that, I don’t know what happened.” He closed the book and gave it back to me. “I don’t think anything much happened.” 


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Will Stephenson wrote the series “Outskirts of the Southern Canon” on OxfordAmerican.org. His writing has also appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the FADER, Pacific Standard, and the Paris Review Daily.