You're likely to see most anything in Huger Foote's photographs. Lush green foliage scaling a prickly chain-link fence. A woman's feet clad in orange sandals, picking their way through scattered droppings of cabbage, carrots, and cauliflower. A small girl, seen through a plate-glass window, huddled against a laundromat.
For sure you'll see light, dappling over a leopard-print sofa in a cluttered, cheerful room; dancing off a car outside a Texaco station; bathing a tree, a dog, a dumpster with mysterious significance.
And to Huger Foote - a native Memphian now living in London, son of historian and author Shelby Foote, and a self-professed voyeur who considers his photographs "gifts to me" - all these minutiae of everyday life are more than significant. They're extraordinary.
"If my book could speak," he says, referring to a published collection of his works that was released in fall 2000, "it would say, 'Look!' Exclamation point! I guess I want everybody to take another look at the world."
Foote isn't sure why he titled the book My Friend from Memphis
. "I guess I just liked it," he says during a phone interview from his home in London's Notting Hill. "It's not logical. Who is the friend? I don't know."
What he does know is that Memphis holds a powerful attraction for him and that at least half of the 87 photographs in the book were shot here during the mid 1990s. "There's a part of me that I think I bottle up when I'm away from Memphis," says the 39-year-old Foote, who has also lived in New York and Paris and has had exhibitions at London's prestigious Hamiltons Gallery, which has also represented the likes of Richard Avedon and Irving Penn. "My heart is always pulling me there. Going home wakes up the oldest part of me. There I can get reconnected to my old true self."
And it was in Memphis, in 1994, that a near-death experience taught him the discipline that comes with solitude and gave fresh inspiration to his work.Ê
Foote - whose first name was passed down from his great-grandfather and is pronounced "U.G.," though most folks simply call him Huggie - is the only child of Shelby and Gwyn Foote, who raised him to revere the arts. "Literature, painting, photography, these were and are my father's gods," says Foote. When he was 16, his father gave him a list of "99 Best Books" - including Silas Marner, Ulysses, The Idiot - "works that changed me and opened my mind to the big world," he adds.
Foote can hardly remember a time when he wasn't taking pictures. He started out around the age of 10, first with an old Polaroid, then with an Argus that his father fished out of an old shoebox. "It was a proper 35 millimeter," he recalls, "and I was very excited." His early shots included "lots of photos of my dog," a bull terrier named Rattler, and "whatever happened to be around."
As a student at Memphis University School, he won a photography contest for a photo he called Boy Upside Down. "I was standing at the top of some steps and he was below me leaning back, just a kid in the neighborhood," says Foote. "Those are the kinds of things I started out shooting and have ended up shooting."
But Foote's life has hardly come a neat full circle; he's made some dips and detours along the way. As a rebellious, angry teen, "resenting the self-righteous when they tried to impose themselves on me," Foote wound up being expelled from MUS in his freshman year. "I was smoking grass with some other guys by the tennis courts and one of the coaches came bounding over the hedge and collared us," he recalls with a smile in his voice. "The next thing I knew I was in Connecticut, meeting people in another part of the country, experiencing the crazy environment of boarding school." Although he admits his stint at Pomfret School was "one of the best things in the world for me," it didn't snuff his rebellion; he hung out in girls' dorms, left campus while on restriction, and was ultimately booted out for "cumulative offenses."Ê
Back in Memphis, the good times kept rolling. He'd sneak out of the house at night and go partying with adults who'd buy him all the Stingers he could drink, then get picked up on the streets by friends who'd drop him off at home before dawn. "Memphis in the '70s was such a fantastic, bizarre, bohemian community," he recalls. "The drugs, the late nights - I would snooze through school. But my grades were always good and I graduated from MUS. I started doing adult things and I'm so glad I was in Memphis for that." While he has no regrets about that period of his life, he's relieved to be rid of the anger. "I like to think I've stopped fighting anyone. It's a waste of time and spirit."
After high school, Foote headed for Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, and spent his senior year in Paris. Serendipity, as he calls it, guided him to a job that launched his career in photography. After graduating in 1984 he decided to stay in Paris and was looking for work when he heard about a new photography studio that was hiring.Ê
Soon he'd landed a job as personal assistant to famed fashion photographer Pamela Hansen. "It was a great training ground," Foote recalls, "an endless amount of film, models, a working environment with major magazines." After about four years of assisting various photographers, including Annie Lebovitz, Foote came to a realization. "I wanted to be a photographer in my own right."
Although he set out to shoot fashion, his works revealed as much about the individual as they did the clothes. "I started getting a lot of half-fashion, half-portrait work assignments, including shots of blues artists Aaron Neville and John Lee Hooker," says Foote, who by this time in the mid-1980s had moved from Paris to New York. "I was New York-based but was always attracted back to the South, to home, and the great subjects there."Ê
Among these subjects was Foote's mentor, and fellow Memphian William Eggleston, the first artist to exhibit color photographs at the Museum of Modern Art. Foote's portrait of Eggleston - dressed in riding clothes, fondling a shotgun, looking at once elegant and dangerous - appeared in the October 1991 issue of Vanity Fair
In the introduction that Eggleston wrote for My Friend from Memphis
, he zeroes in on Foote's talent: "Over the years I've watched Huger get better and better: Delightful thing, his way of looking around. Sometimes, one of the best ways to take pictures is to forget what the subject is . . . and compose a fine image of whatever's out there. . . . That's something you can't teach, something you somehow pick up."
As it turned out, fate compelled Foote to sharpen his skill of "looking around" and granted him plenty of time to do it. In the spring of 1994, during a two-week visit to Memphis, he was shot at pointblank range with a double-barreled shotgun in an attempted carjacking. "It was random," he says. "[The shooter] was aiming at my head. I held my arm up, ducked, and the gun went off." Left for dead, he managed to drive himself to the hospital. "Shock is a weird thing," says Foote. "I wasn't scared. Just blissfully floating." But he sustained serious injuries to his left arm that required several surgeries and an extended convalescence in Memphis, which after the Big Apple seemed "awfully quiet and full of empty hours to fill."
During recuperation, a large box arrived from a friend in New York, the sculptor Richard Serra. In the box were gifts that helped Foote learn to savor solitude - the journals of Edward Weston, a photographer who retreated from New York to live out West. The journals held a message for Foote about living in isolation. "I knew I needed to listen to this man."
Soon Foote was spending his long afternoons taking "Memphis safaris." He'd pack a couple of Leicas in the car and just drive, down Summer Avenue, through neighborhoods he'd never seen, and stop to record the details of life - parking lots and light poles, wisteria blooms and watermelon stands, a lemon peel lying beside a water meter. The next thing he knew it was five o'clock; he'd drop the film off to be developed and edit it the next morning.Ê
Certain photos spoke to him. One was taken while poking around an antiques mall on Union Avenue. "I made a composition of various elements," - a book, a table, a picture frame, a blur of blue - "but I wasn't really looking at the subject matter. It was just an abstraction." says Foote. When some-one told him that the blur of blue was a glass bird called the bluebird of happiness, a self-revelation dawned. "I knew that I was happier and more inspired photographically and more alive than I had been for a long time," he says. "The message was, 'Just go with this. Stop worrying and keep shooting these pictures.' "
He not only kept shooting but started gluing pictures into books, gradually replacing weaker works with stronger ones. "But I had no intention of showing them in galleries at that time. They were for my own pleasure, or friends and family."
In 1995, David Lusk and Baylor Ledbetter, who at the time were starting Ledbetter-Lusk Gallery, happened to see one of the photographs. Intrigued, they asked if they could come and look at Foote's other work.
"I was nervous," recalls Foote, his voice cracking a little at the memory. "I didn't know what they were going to think." Later that day the gallery partners called and said they wanted to represent Foote and display a group of his photographs as their gallery's first exhibition. Laughing with delight, Foote says now, "Can you imagine my surprise? That show just boggled my mind. The thought that I would make money on these pictures never even occurred to me."
After that show, titled "Thirty Photographs," a representative with the Gallery of Contemporary Photography in Santa Monica called, saying she'd heard of Foote's work and asking him to send her a portfolio. He shipped her 10 pictures, all of which she sold, and she gave him a solo exhibition that spring.
After that, more shows followed. Over the past five years, Foote's works - which now start at about $2,000 and are available in the dye-transfer and pigment-transfer method of printing - have been displayed in some 30 group or solo exhibitions in galleries from Memphis and Chattanooga to New York and London. Last year the Brussels Art Fair, Sotheby's in London, and The Armory in New York featured his photography, and David Lusk Gallery in Memphis and Hamiltons Gallery in London gave him solo shows. Foote's works also hang in the private collections of singer Elton John, model Christy Turlington, and Microsoft founder Bill Gates.Ê
In 1997, wanderlust struck and Foote headed for London with only a suitcase of clothes and a portfolio, planning to stay a month or so to see how he liked it. "Within a month, everything fell into place," he says, "the most important being I signed with Hamiltons Gallery. It's like a fantasy place, like being in the halls of splendor, right in the middle of Mayfair in London."Ê
Within Foote's photographs, some critics see a paradoxical world of joy and pain, innocence and menace. Foote's friend, novelist Susan Minot, writes in My Friend from Memphis
, "In all the work there's a festive celebratory atmosphere and hidden within, something wrenching."Ê
Yet others, including Hamiltons Gallery's Tim Jeffries, consider Foote's works more sanguine. "It always seems to be summer in his photographs," Jeffries told British Vogue. And Edward Booth-Clibborn, whose company Booth-Clibborn Editions published My Friend from Memphis
, writes, ". . . there is something unusual about this photography, with such brightness, such clear primary colours . . . I could see the light of Memphis in all his work."
Foote himself says that Minot's description of his photography - festive yet wrenching - sums it up. Perhaps the wrenching comes from his sense that each moment is fleeting and that a camera's lens can only capture so much. "Having stared death in the face makes every detail more alive for me," he says. "It's like I suddenly woke up to the incredible magic, the extraordinary beauty, of everything around me."
Refreshingly upbeat, well-grounded, and grateful, with a charming streak of Southern gentility, Foote hasn't let success go to his head. And while comments about the "extraordinary beauty" of life might come across as sappy from someone else, from Foote they ring with genuine joy and awe. He speaks with respectful fondness of his family, who, he says, "stood by me and encouraged me through thick and thin." From his father he learned discipline. "Seeing him work in his office eight hours a day, five days a week, I saw what adults did," says Foote. "By example and advice he'd keep reminding me, 'The most important thing is your work,' and if I'd get sidetracked, by women or whatever, he'd say, 'Son, you need to remember what's important.' "
Perhaps the highest compliment he's received came from his mother. "She said, 'After I looked at your book, I walked around and the world looked like one of your pictures.' And that really was just what I was hoping," says Foote. "Somewhere deep down that really is probably why I felt this urge to show them to people."
My Friend from Memphis
(Booth-Clibborn Editions) is available at several local bookstores, including Burke's and Davis-Kidd Booksellers, and at David Lusk Gallery.
[This story originally appeared in the May issue of Memphis