“My attic is infested with brown recluse spiders, but the boxes are up there somewhere. Let me see what I can find. I’ll call you back.”
It’s July, and I’m just off the phone with photographer Maude Schuyler Clay. I’d called to ask about her images but also about family photos and any letters or memorabilia from over the years. Across the South, it’s hotter than three hells, and she’s in Sumner, Mississippi, without air conditioning. Still, she doesn’t miss a beat. Listening to Maude speak in that drowsy thick accent feels akin to someone brushing your hair. And to be regaled by her Bill Eggleston stories with a clear understanding of their family’s place in the history of photography? That puts you in a trance.
Maude Clay and the great William Eggleston are cousins. Their mamas were sisters. Eggleston was born in Memphis and grew up on the cotton farm his family owned in Mississippi. Maude still lives in the old home place on Cassidy Bayou, with her husband, also a photographer, Langdon Clay. They lovingly call the family home, built in 1910, Grey Gardens South, thus the brown recluse situation. Cousin Bill lives just two hours up the road in Memphis.
Eggleston’s work, for which he’s received a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and the Getty Images Lifetime Achievement Award, has been exhibited from Birmingham to Berlin.
Today, William Eggleston is 82 years old, and he and Maude don’t visit quite as often. But lucky for us, in one of those boxes in the attic, guarded by poisonous spiders, deep in the Mississippi Delta, Maude found a treasure.