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When William “Bill” Ferris served as the founding director for the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, he was concerned that the university didn’t own much work by William Faulkner, acclaimed internationally for his short stories and novels set in North Mississippi.
“When I got to Ole Miss in the late 1970s, we had virtually no Faulkner,” Ferris said.
Ferris took it upon himself to organize a fundraising effort to purchase Faulkner’s Rowan Oak papers.
Around the same time, Ferris met famed photographer William J. Eggleston through mutual friends in Memphis and they became fast friends.
“I visited his home and saw his amazingly beautiful color transfer prints,” Ferris said.
Ferris began purchasing the prints and, in time, amassed a good collection. Realizing that Eggleston was to photography what Faulkner was to writing, Ferris decided to donate his collection of Eggleston prints to the university in the 1980s. Thanks to his generosity, the University Museum at Ole Miss has 54 Eggleston prints in its permanent collection.
An exclusive exhibition of 36 color and black-and-white Eggleston photographs from the museum’s permanent collection, “The Beautiful Mysterious: The Extraordinary Gaze of William Eggleston,” will run through Jan. 14, 2017.
Eggleston has been credited with elevating color photography to a legitimate art medium. His photographs feature every day, ordinary objects and give them an extraordinary quality.
“I consider William Eggleston a spiritual brother,” said Ferris, now a professor of history at the University of North Carolina and associate director of the Center for the Study of the American South. “His artistic sensitivity and his intense focus on creating beauty through his photography provide inspiration for my own work. We did photo shoots together in Waterford and in Oxford, Miss., at Faulkner’s Home, Rowan Oak.”
Born in Memphis and raised in Sumner, Miss., Eggleston attended the University of Mississippi in the late 1960s but didn’t graduate.
Maude Schuyler Clay, a notable Mississippi photographer, as well as Eggleston’s first cousin and protégé, consulted on the exhibit.
“Our mothers were sisters,” she said. “I actually live in the house where they grew up, in Sumner, Miss. It was built in 1910 by my grandparents.”
Eggleston and his work influenced Clay’s life and career.
“I would visit him in Memphis, and I ended up attending the Memphis School of Art,” she said. “I worked as his assistant and had the opportunity to ride around with him as he pointed out objects — light and such. I learned so much from him, but I paid for it by doing darkroom work. It was an amazing time.”
Clay wrote the forward for the catalog that accompanies the show.
“It’s a really interesting, mysterious bunch of photos,” she said. “Megan Abbot, a gifted fiction writer, wrote the main piece, and I wrote an addendum to that.”
Clay also traveled to Memphis several times to take the prints to Eggleston so that he could tell her what he remembered about each one.
“It was a difficult job, but I loved doing it,” she said.
Clay is currently a freelance photographer and has her own show at the Ogden Museum in New Orleans entitled “Mississippi History.”
Abbot was also the guest curator of the show.
“Helping curate this exhibit was an incredible experience,” she said. “For me, his photographs evoke entire worlds — not worlds we merely see but worlds we feel, smell, touch. When you look long enough at his photographs, like the gorgeous, lonely blue parking lot chosen as the exhibit’s central image, you get lost in it. You’re in another place.”
Abbot said the pieces chosen for the exhibit span more than two decades, including many photographs never exhibited before.
“We’ve included nearly all of them (excluding mostly ones duplicative of other selections), and they are stunning. Eggleston is renowned as an innovator in color photography and these photographs show why, but the black-and-white ones are also exquisite, haunting, lovely and strange,” Abbot said. “Strange in the best, most extraordinary way. You look at these photos and you are transported — to Eggleston’s world — and you don’t want to come back.”
Abbot received a doctorate in English and American literature from New York University and taught at NYU, the State University of New York, the New School University and the University of Mississippi, where she was the John and Renée Grisham Writer in Residence in 2013–2014. Much of her writing is inspired by William Eggleston’s photography.
In his essay for the show’s catalog, Ferris wrote, “With the grace of a ballet dancer, Eggleston positioned himself for each shot. He relentlessly tracked art in the everyday life that surrounded him. During the day he photographed the lunch his grandmother served him, barren Mississippi Delta fields, a solitary dog wandering along the road and the intense colors of sunrise and sunset. At night, he was drawn to dark rooms with their incandescent neon lights.”
Eggleston’s son, Winston Eggleston, is the director of the Eggleston Artistic Trust, an organization dedicated to the representation and preservation of the work of William Eggleston.
“I wasn’t able to be in Oxford for the opening on Thursday (Oct. 6) so I went by and looked at the exhibit a few days ago. It was interesting seeing the body of work in one place. There were even a few of the photographs I had never seen before,” he said.
A William Eggleston symposium was held Friday at the Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics on the campus of Ole Miss. Ferris, Clay and Abbot were all featured panelists.
Some of the photographs in the exhibit have never been on display before now. Ferris describes Eggleston as “the greatest living photographer. He is the Picasso or Faulkner of what he does. This exhibit at the museum allows everyone to know his work, which is part of the legacy of Ole Miss.”
The University Museum, at the corner of University Avenue and Fifth Street, is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. For information, visit http://museum.olemiss.edu/ or follow the museum on Twitter and Instagram at @ummuseum and on Facebook.