William Christenberry’s Photographs 1961-2005

Opening this week is a year long exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, and an Aperture gallery retrospective on the photographic life work of William Christenberry, a photographer directly inspired by Walker Evans and William Agee. His work also recalls the straight-eye conceptual verve of Hilda and Bern Becher. History and an accute sense of place are at the heart of Christenberry’s work. Learn more about the exhibit and check out a slide show at: Aperture Gallery

Southern Exposures: Past and Present Through the Lens of William Christenberry
By PHILIP GEFTER Source: New York Times, Published: July 2, 2006

THEY were like perfect little poems,” Walker Evans said about the three-inch-square pictures of the American South that William Christenberry took with his amateur Brownie camera.

The Brownie was never intended for exacting documentation or creative expression; it was the camera used for snapshots of family gatherings and vacations in the 1940’s and 50’s. What a crafty little camera, then, for Mr. Christenberry’s persistent chronicle of the regional architecture and artifacts in his native Hale County, Ala. His little snapshots managed to capture the local dialect of his hometown in visual terms.

Mr. Christenberry was born in 1936 in Tuscaloosa, Ala., not 20 miles away from the migrant farmers Evans photographed that same year and later published in “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” with text by James Agee.

The sharecroppers in Evans’s photographs lived in a house across the cotton fields from the farm owned by Mr. Christenberry’s grandparents. By the time Mr. Christenberry discovered the book, in 1960, he was a young artist. When he moved to New York the next year, it took him months to work up the courage to call Evans, then the picture editor at Fortune.

“Young man, there is something about the way you use this little camera that makes it a perfect extension of your eye,” is how Mr. Christenberry recalls Evans’s reaction to the Brownie prints. Speaking in a courtly Southern drawl in a phone interview from his studio in Washington, he said that Evans encouraged him to return to the South to continue his work.

The South became Mr. Christenberry’s subject, not only in the photographs for which he is now best known, but also in sculpture, painting and assemblages exploring his relationship to his Southern past. A major yearlong exhibition of Mr. Christenberry’s work in these mediums has just opened at the newly refurbished Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, and a comprehensive catalog, “William Christenberry,” has been published with Aperture. Simultaneously an exhibition of Mr. Christenberry’s photographs is opening on Friday at the Aperture Gallery in Chelsea.

By 1962 Mr. Christenberry had moved to Memphis. He met a young local photographer named William Eggleston and invited him to his studio, where a series of his color Brownie snapshots had been tacked to the wall. In the early 1960’s color film was considered too commercial and artificial to be used for art photography. Still, Mr. Eggleston’s one-man exhibition of color photographs at the Museum of Modern Art in 1976 was a milestone — despite its disapproving critics — and he became known as a pioneer among the first generation of color photographers. “It’s interesting to think that if Evans hadn’t encouraged Christenberry to go back to the South, Eggleston might still be a black-and-white photographer,” writes Walter Hopps, the founding director of the Menil Collection in Houston, in a posthumous essay in the catalog to the Smithsonian show.

Initially Mr. Christenberry picked up the Brownie camera to make color prints as references for his paintings. “I was about as interested in photography as I was in physics,” he said. “If you thought of the Brownie picture as a dream or an apparition, the prints were nothing more than a distant feeling of what the color made them seem.”

Mr. Christenberry, who has lived in Washington since 1968, makes annual pilgrimages to Hale County to document the personal landmarks of his youth. After the first big exhibition of his Brownie pictures, at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington in 1973, he became acquainted with other photographers of his generation. Encouraged by Lee Friedlander to experiment with a large-format view camera he took 30 sheets of 8-by-10-inch negative film down to Hale County in 1977.

“I didn’t know what I was doing,” he said. “I had to get a commercial photographer from Tuscaloosa to load the camera for me. I double-exposed the first sheet.”

Since then he has been working not only with the Brownie camera but also with 35-millimeter and 8-by-10 cameras. The different types of equipment, formats and films affect the look of a picture as much as the position of the photographer and the lighting conditions.
Compare “Church, Sprott, Ala., 1971,” taken with a Brownie camera, and “Church, Sprott, Ala., 1981,” taken with an 8-by-10 view camera. The Brownie image looks like a plastic toy model of a church. The exaggerated color gives the structure an unreal patina, and the lack of fine detail flattens the surfaces. By contrast, the level of fine detail in the 8-by-10 contact print, as well as the lens clarity, present a more recognizable record of the church as it really looked when Mr. Christenberry took the picture.
Enlarge this Image

“The church just pulls me in,” said Mr. Christenberry, who had been photographing Sprott Church every year. “It’s truly, as the hymn says, the church in the wildwood.”

Yet his photographs are only one component. In 1991 he returned to Sprott Church, disturbed to see that its spires were gone. Mr. Christenberry relied on his decades of pictures to make several sculptural pieces. “Sprott Church (Memory), 2005,” made of illustration board, encaustic and soil, is not only a homage to the church but also a souvenir from the region where he spent his youth.

“As I get older,” he said, “memory becomes a major part of my being.”

There are other sites he has chronicled from the same spot over many years, using different cameras, like the country store in Hale County that eventually became a social club. The photographic grids of these prints show the deterioration, transformation or even demise of individual structures over the course of time. The effect of the grid format is cinematic, like a long time-lapse movie slowed to individual frames at particular years.

Mr. Christenberry’s grids present the relics of a time and a place in a format similar to the work of the German photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher, whose photographic grids catalog the vestiges of a disappearing industrial landscape with a clinical eye. But Mr. Christenberry’s documentation is more personal, interpretive even. “The vast majority of what I do is a celebration of where I came from,” he explained.

Nicholas Nixon, another photographer Mr. Christenberry came to know in the 1970’s, has been making annual portraits of his wife with her sisters since 1975. Collectively Mr. Nixon’s photographs chronicle the passage of time and its effect on his family, just as Mr. Christenberry’s grids record how the passage of time changes vernacular architecture. They both return to the same subject, although with different intentions.

Despite Mr. Christenberry’s affection for Hale County, which to some extent drives his own expressive chronicle, not all aspects of the bygone South were halcyon. “How can I, as a Southerner, have turned a blind eye on racism?” Mr. Christenberry asked.

In the mid-1960’s he was able to take pictures of Ku Klux Klan events with a hidden camera. These images are part of an installation piece he has added to over the years, called “The Klan Room.” It’s a Pandora’s box of a room, filled with his paintings of Klansmen, photographs, sculptural objects and relics: a stark acknowledgment of the dark side of the South’s cultural history.

Mr. Christenberry didn’t grow up around the graceful antebellum mansions and elegant public buildings that reflect the gentility of the South, and they are not represented in his work. He chooses buildings, signs and relics based on their relationship to his own experiences.

“Son,” he recalls his mother once saying to him, “everybody in Washington, D.C., is going to think Alabama is one rusted-out, worn-down, bullet-riddled place based on your work.”

“TB Hicks Store, Newbern, Ala., 1976” depicts a place that triggers memories. A vestigial structure that sagged to the left and the right when Mr. Christenberry shot it, the photograph provides an example of the vernacular architecture of his youth and a record of a building that no longer exists.

“It was a one-chair barbershop,” he said, with fondness, recalling that its chrome-trimmed, leather swivel chair reminded him of barber chairs he sat in as a child. “It was a great building as it began to shift, and, later, until it collapsed.”

Evans’s influence on Mr. Christenberry is evident in this picture. The straightforward approach, the simple composition, the ordinary roadside subject matter — all seem to quote directly from the style and the theme of “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.”

“Walker was a very meaningful person in my life, but don’t forget Agee,” Mr. Christenberry said. “What Agee was doing in the written word was what I wanted to do visually.”


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