I’ll come right out and admit my naivety about who William Eggleston is or what he does. I’ll also save you the embarrassment of asking these same questions, if you also don’t know who he is and if you feel embarrassed that is. Yet after watching the documentary on his life and his work, entitled “By the Ways, a Journey With William Eggleston,” I’m not sure I know any more about him then I did before. I’m also fairly certain that this confusion brought on by the film was by design.
This much I was able to glean from the film. Eggleston is a photographer who is known as “the father of modern color photography.” His work is really pretty great, although there’s not nearly enough of it in the film. He seems to take simple shots and make them stand out. Various friends and family are interviewed and really only talk about his work, not the man himself. It’s quite possibly Eggleston is as uninteresting as this doc is to watch, but I’m not sure. The film skips all over the place like a 60’s art film, following Eggleston as he photographs scenes in Memphis and Italy.
There’s one telling scene in which David Byrne of Talking Heads fame tells a story about how Eggleston was hired to photograph the set of “Annie.” Byrne says it was directed by Robert Altman so I’m guessing he may have meant “Popeye.” Anyway, Byrne says while other photogs were busy capturing the actors or the action being filmed, Eggleston seemed obsessed with photographing the sets as they became abandoned. Byrne ends by saying something to the effect of how Eggleston seemed to love not fulfilling the expectations of those who hired him for jobs. “By the Ways, a Journey With William Eggleston” seems to fit that template as well.
The film kind of meanders around and talks about photos or series of photos, but doesn’t show them onscreen. Stories are told about Eggleston but he’s never asked to comment on them. It’s highly frustrating. Still, for all it’s faults this film served it’s purpose somewhat in that I now know a little bit about Eggleston’s work. I just wish the film hadn’t tried to be so arty and unconventional and instead gave us more of the photographs and the man who took them.