The details are a bit sketchy now, but everyone agrees the picture was taken in Memphis, Tennessee, on a late summer night in 1973. Karen Chatham, the young woman in blue, recalls that she had been out drinking when she met up with Lesa Aldridge, the woman in red. Lesa didn't drink at the time, but both were 18, the legal age then. As the bars closed at 3 a.m., the two followed some other revelers to a friend's house nearby. In the mix was a 30-something man who had been taking pictures all night. "I always thought of Bill as just like us," Karen says today, "until years later, when I realized that he was famous."
Bill is William Eggleston, now known as the man who made color photography a respectable art form. Just three years later, his work—vivid shots of a rusty tricycle, an old oven, a hound dog drinking from a muddy puddle—was the subject of the Museum of Modern Art's first major solo exhibition of color photographs. While Eggleston's pictures helped legitimize his medium, a reputation as a hard-drinking and nattily dressed Southern eccentric added to his legend. Since 2005, two documentaries about him—and one by him—have made the international film festival circuit. And the 11th book of his work, 5x7, was published earlier this year.
The new book features photographs from a 1973 project in which Eggleston took a $10,000 studio portrait camera into Memphis bars to shoot candid pictures of anonymous patrons. The photograph of Karen and Lesa, which appears in the book, is part of that series, though it wasn't taken in a bar and the subjects were hardly anonymous to Eggleston. Lesa is his second cousin, and Karen was her best friend.
Lesa recalls that the picture was taken on the night before she left home for her freshman year at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. Her mother had made the red dress, patterning it after an Austrian folk costume. At the after-hours party, Karen was crying and "really distraught about some boy trouble," Lesa remembers. In order to talk in private, they went into a bathroom, where Karen somehow managed to fall into a bathtub full of water. After she dried off, she put on a blue velour robe that was hanging behind the door. Then the two camped out in the next room and resumed talking.
"Suddenly, in the periphery, I heard Eggleston say, 'Oh, what a beautiful picture,'" Lesa says. "And then people were setting up lights and it was like Hollywood or something." Neither young woman paid them much heed. "I was just in that little world with Karen," Lesa says. "I was so used to Eggleston taking pictures everywhere we went that summer that it didn't even faze me," Karen says.
The picture's soothing, Vermeer-like effect and classically romantic sensibility depart from Eggleston's signature visual style, which uses color and light to bring out hidden charms in subjects that are both ordinary and stark. His photos are credited with inspiring the look of such films as David Lynch's Blue Velvet and Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides. But the differences between this photograph and his others don't matter much to him.
"I wouldn't change anything," says Eggleston, now 67. "The whole picture is very painting-like. It's not like most of my work. That may have been what attracted me to notice it." He takes only one shot of any scene and feels lucky to have captured this one. "I knew it was a beautiful sight," he says. "The picture has the appearance that I had gone to a lot of trouble arranging it. But I didn't."
Karen and Lesa are both 51 now and divorced. Karen uses her middle name, Lucretia, and her married name, Hampton; she has a son and works as a nurse in Memphis. Lesa has two sons and a daughter and teaches high-school English in Nashville. From this photograph, it's hard to believe that a few years later the women sang in a Memphis punk band called Gangrene and the Scurvy Girls. (They were the Scurvy Girls.) The band didn't last. However, Eggleston's delicate image of their youth did. And for that, both women say, they're grateful.
Emily Yellin grew up in Memphis and is the author of Our Mothers' War.