William Eggleston was born in Memphis, Tennessee and raised in Sumner, Mississippi. His father was an engineer and his mother was the daughter of a prominent local judge. As a boy, Eggleston was introverted; he enjoyed playing the piano, drawing, and working with electronics. From an early age, he was also drawn to visual media, and reportedly enjoyed buying postcards and cutting out pictures from magazines.
At the age of 15, Eggleston was sent to the Webb School, a boarding establishment. Eggleston later recalled few fond memories of the school, telling a reporter, "It had a kind of Spartan routine to 'build character'. I never knew what that was supposed to mean. It was so callous and dumb. It was the kind of place where it was considered effeminate to like music and painting." Eggleston was unusual among his peers in eschewing the traditional Southern male pursuits of hunting and sports, in favor of artistic pursuits and observation of the world. Nevertheless, Eggleston noted that he never felt like an outsider. "I never had the feeling that I didn't fit in," he told a reporter, "But probably I didn't."
Eggleston attended Vanderbilt University for a year, Delta State College for a semester, and the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) for about five years, none of these experiences resulting in a college degree. However, it was during these university years that his interest in photography took root: a friend at Vanderbilt gave Eggleston a Leica camera. Eggleston studied art at Ole Miss and was introduced to abstract expressionism by visiting painter, Tom Young.