William Eggleston was on his best behavior Wednesday evening at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. In front of a packed auditorium, the “father of color photography” sat for an hour and a half talking with his friend, Michael Almereyda, the director and producer of the documentary William Eggleston in the Real World. While flipping through the slides of Eggleston’s best and least known photographs of the past 40 years, Almereyda discussed the pictures and drew Eggleston into dialogue about the work. As the audience soon found out, speaking with the Eggleston about his photographs is no easy task. He wears a genteel uniform of bow-ties and suits (I’ve even seen him at a lecture wearing a pair of white gloves), and he speaks in a sweetly aristocratic southern accent. But when it comes to talking about his work, the man seems more barracuda than gentleman.

Almereyda, however, handled the situation well. It’s clear that during the time they spent together making the documentary, they developed a real friendship. The director managed to pose questions and draw Eggleston out, prompting a story or two about the photographs on display.

Many of the audience members, though, did not fare as well. One eager young student-type asked Eggleston how he funded his extensive photographing trips across America. Not keen to talk about his financial background, Eggleston responded sharply yelling at the boy “go pump some gas why don’t you, it’s always been hard to make money from art!” When a woman dared analyze a photograph and share a quote from Truman Capote, Eggleston interrupted “Truman wasn’t there! What has he got to do with it?” When she replied that it was just her interpretation, he shut her down with a brusque “well that’s why it doesn’t make any sense.” It seems the more earnest the question, the sharper Eggleston’s bite.

Elsewhere, Eggleston was more responsive. He talked about that iconic photograph of a tricycle. He explained how when laying the camera on the ground he put a coin under it to angle it up so as to make the tricycle loom large over everything else in the photograph. He explained why he likes the red ceiling photograph, with its white cords and the hint of an erotic poster. And he admitted that four dour-looking older women in a lesser-known photograph were his “favorite girls” because he liked their brightly patterned dresses. It wasn’t just his stories and his temper that was illuminating—his elocution style itself shed light on his work: words were short and simple, but layered with wit, audacity, and poignancy…and thick with meaning, just like his photographs.

William Eggleston and the Democratic Camera; Photographs and Video 1961-2008 opens at the Corcoran Gallery of Art on Saturday June 20th.

Photograph above by Christopher Cunningham.