Born November 5, 1936. Tuscaloosa, Alabama
“Everything that means anything to me - morality, integrity, close family ties, my heritage, the land - comes from the South, from the place where I grew up.”
- William Christenberry
Born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama in 1936, William Christenberry grew up in the ‘deep south’ where old road signs, deteriorating buildings, and dirt roads shaped his boyhood memories. In 1954, Christenberry began his academic career at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa where he studied the fine arts and graduated with a Master of Arts in Painting in 1959. During his early career, Christenberry was primarily a painter, but began incorporating the use of a Brownie camera into his working procedures. In 1961 he moved to New York to gain exposure to the energies of city life and the international art community. It was here that Christenberry befriended Walker Evans, the celebrated photographer of the Farm Security Administration, who documented the devastating effect of the Great Depression in the South. Evans’s photographs, many from Christenberry’s hometown, published in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men particularly influenced Christenberry’s work as an artist.
In 1967, Christenberry moved to Washington, where he joined the faculty of the Corcoran School of Art and Design, where he continues today as a professor of photography. Since 1968 Christenberry’s pilgrimages home to visit family in his native Hale County, Alabama became occasions for artistic inspiration. Through a variety of media, Christenberry explores the effects of time on his boyhood home by choosing subjects such as buildings, signs, and found objects. Christenberry believes that all objects leave their individual mark on the landscape as time passes, even when the object is destroyed in reality.
He has held teaching positions at the CorcoranSchool of Art, Washington, D.C., Memphis State University, and the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa. Christenberry’s work belongs to numerous collections, including the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; the Menil Collection, Houston; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the National Museum of American Art, Washington, D.C.; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.
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Past and Present Through the Lens of William Christenberry
"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.
"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."
July 2, 2006 | Philip Gefter
AN INTERVIEW WITH WILLIAM CHRISTENBERRY
William Christenberry is a multi-media artist whose themes relate to his Southern upbringing. Born in 1936 and raised in Hale County, Alabama, this is the very county made famous by James Agee and Walker Evans’ seminal book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Known best for his small format and 8x10 photographic images of the South, Christenberry has returned annually to Hale County to make his photographs. Since 1968, he has taught at the Corcoran College of Art and Design and lived in Washington D.C.
On occasion of his latest show, a traveling exhibition organized by Aperture, currently on view at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, Christenberry spoke with Big Red writer Ben R. Sloat.
Ben R. Sloat: Your images are very much about changes in the South, of your hometown in Hale County, Alabama. I’m wondering if you see the camera as a way to preserve, to keep what was once there or do you see it as a witness for change happening?
William Christenberry: My work is often confused with being nostalgic. The work is not nostalgic for something gone or passing, or in the process of change, but I am fascinated with how things do change and with vernacular architecture. I call it the “architecture of my childhood”: the dogtrot or breezeway house, country stores…there are so few left. I have fond memories but I would like to say that nostalgia is not the main thing. You can wallow, if you know what I mean. Let me also emphasize that the camera was not my main means of expression at that time, nor is it today. It’s mostly been painting or sculpture but photography became a vehicle to record, to preserve some of the things that are bygone. Even in the last twenty years I’m hard pressed to find subject matter that interests me.
BRS: Along those lines, you can make a parallel with the work of Eugene Atget, making photographs for painters to use as backdrops. Is there an identity of the South you’re trying to capture, is that too complex of a thing to define?
WC: I think certain Southern writers high on my list have contributed: Mr. Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, and in more recent times, Walker Percy and many others, but we (Southerners) were not thought of as a visual artists. This has happened more in my lifetime, where people began to think things in the landscape have some interest or beauty. I don’t want to make too much of this, but the use of that little camera, for the beginning, was just the most straightforward response to that landscape. I would often make sketches of the buildings I was photographing, It pleases me that now those little 3” x 5” photographs are a record of something that’s going fast.
As time went on, I had quite a few photographer friends. The first person to encourage me to take those little Brownie snapshots was Walker Evans himself. When he saw those in New York in 1962 he said: “young man, there’s something about the way you use this little camera that’s become a perfect extension of your eye. I suggest you take these seriously.”
Well I had a really hard head! It meant a lot coming from him, but I don’t think I fully understood it at the time. Evans had said early on: “color photography’s vulgar but there’s something about this lens (of the Brownie), the lack of sharpness, that makes the color just right.”
BRS: I’m struck by the human stories each of the images seem to contain, a trace of a person: the woman who made the egg carton crosses, the people who painted their houses only up to where they could reach…You’re not really making portraits of people, but maybe portraits of a culture, a society.
WC: I like that, I think you’re absolutely right. I never felt comfortable photographing people. Even Sandy’s and my children, who are grown now, or our grandchildren, I don’t make pictures of them. I can make a decent snapshot of them playing, but it doesn’t resonate with me as much as the human touch on a building, on a grave, on an egg carton cross, that has a certain wonderment for me as an artist.
BRS: In term of that human touch you mention, the same can be said of the sculptures you’ve made of buildings, which is your touch and the time you spend to build them. Could you talk a little bit about that transition to sculpture and what those do as opposed to what the photographs do.
WC: I’m pleased of the exhibitions here, the ones put together by Aperture that we’re going to see tonight, and I’m not faulting anybody, but I think it would be extremely helpful to include the building constructions, as I call them. I don’t call them models because they’re not models to me. I don’t have a scale to go by or a floorplan, they’re all by eye. They might look like, or hopefully have the feeling of the building that was once in the landscape.
There’s something about the little camera, I don’t know if I’ve been successful with it, but it has represented a pretty good aesthetic in terms of my feeling about the place. It was that desire, that need, and the camera seemed to be the tool, the device, to record that which I’ve really had a love affair with.
BRS: I’m interested in how you return back to Alabama yearly. You don’t hear too much of photographers retracing their steps to observe changes.
WC: This was not a planned thing, this was an evolving thing. Our children are grown now, but when my parents were alive, living in Alabama, we wanted them to have contact with their grandparents and other relatives. It was just natural thing to make photographs of those things in the landscape.
Interesting point, I have made a trip back every year since ’68, without fail, sometimes if I had to give a lecture or talk, I might get to go back in the fall, or in the winter. Then in the seventies, ’77 I think, some of my photographer friends, Nick Nixon in particular, and to some degree Eggleston and Friedlander said: “Wouldn’t be interesting to see what Christenberry might do with a sophisticated camera!” So I had to learn on the job, never exposed a sheet of film before. I had a professional photographer load the film, slide in the holders, so I got lucky. And they were in focus! And they weren’t bad!
When they were first exhibited, we had them printed onto 20” x 24” paper, that was considered a pretty big picture. Nowadays, we live in a day of big, big, big pictures, but I’m not being critical.
BRS: Do you think the limitation of being in Alabama only once a year, or twice a year, gave you a different perspective than if you were there all the time?
WC: Good question. I don’t think if I lived there all the time that I would see it the way I do. I see my work as highly subjective, it’s a total involvement with that place, that light, that situation, etcetera etcetera. Some people find that whole statement rather pretentious.
BRS: …that the work is about yourself, ultimately? Evans talks about Atget’s work being a projection of himself onto old Paris.
WC: That’s a very good parallel and I’ve always admired, for many many years, the work of Atget. And precisely that. Paris, his environment.
BRS: I’m interested in the multimedia aspects of your work.
WC: Yes, don’t leave that out sir! I’ll continue to have exhibitions, I hope, like what’s here, and there’s some found objects in the exhibition, signage. Ideally, it’s the whole range of work. There’s another show that originated at the Smithsonian in Washington, it’s not a retrospective but it’s a big show and some of the sculptures are eight feet high. It’s worked out very well, People will come up to me and say “I had no idea you did so many things.” They’ll know the sculpture or the painting, and didn’t know the photographs, or vice versa.
BRS: Could you speak a little bit about your interest in Duchamp?
WC: That’s good question, even as a student, in the 1960s at the University of Alabama, I became interested in Surrealism and Dadaism. Dadaism came first, Surrealism was often called: “Dada’s sawed-off-side.” The philosophy of it (interested me). Dadaism had a social significance, because of World War I: chaos in this world, madness, irrationality, so on and so forth. One of the leaders in that movement was Marcel Duchamp. I would go to the library at the University of Alabama and they had a lot of wonderful books on Dada, especially Duchamp. I never looked at Duchamp as an influence in terms of his actual works but his philosophy, yes, most definitely.
December 1, 2008 | BEN SLOAT
“It is the genius of William Christenberry to stir up intensely evocative emotions and meanings from common, even humble, pieces of the world.”— Howard N. Fox, curator of modern and contemporary art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art. If you call the current comprehensive exhibition of William Christenberry's work a "retrospective," he will politely correct you with his charming Southern drawl: "It's not a retrospective, because I'm not dead yet."
Nevertheless, the show at the Smithsonian, and the accompanying book by Aperture, show the artist and his evolutions and variations and recurrent themes in near encyclopedic form. We discover his strong reliance on photography dating from his first photographs from 1961 (used primarily as source material for his painting and sculpture), through his instant leap from a brownie camera to an 8 x 10 view camera (at the insistence of his friend Lee Friedlander) in the mid 1970s.
His professional interests have remained intensely personal throughout his career. He values vernacular architecture and signs from the southern United States. And he continues to document these kinds of subjects year after year, to show the deterioration and changes brought about by time and nature and human intervention.
The book itself is beautifully designed and printed. The sequencing of material allows you the shock of recognition at the passing of 20-plus years of time, year by year, of some of the same subject matter. And we are able to experience how a talented painter and sculptor like Christenberry can use these captured fleeting moments of time to create paintings, sculptures and collages.Christenberry spoke to an audience of photography enthusiasts on December 1, 2006 at a presentation for San Francisco's PhotoAlliance and Aperture West. Here you can listen to some choice bits from that presentation:
William Christenberry audio: About bringing photography into his practice as a painter and sculptor: and personal anecdotes about some of his iconic images: Green Warehouse, BBQ Inn, Red Building in Forest, Coca-Cola Sign, Door with Christmas Lights, plus comments about current work of dreamlike sculptures of imaginary Southern Monuments.
Article by Jim Casper
1936 William Christenberry is born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
1954-59 Attends University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa; receives bachelor of fine arts (1958) and master of arts in painting (1959).
1958-59 Instructor at the University of Alabama. Begins taking photographs with Brownie camera.
1960 Discovers James Agee and Walker Evans'sLet Us Now Praise Famous Men.
1961-62 Lives in New York City, where he meets Walker Evans. The two remain friends until Evans's death in 1975.
1962 Takes teaching position as assistant professor of art at Memphis State University. Begins friendship with William Eggleston. Produces first drawings and paintings forThe Klan Room.
1963 Shifts primary focus of work from painting to sculpture and photography.
1967 Marries Sandra Deane.
1968 Becomes professor of drawing and painting at the Corcoran College of Art and Design, Washington, D.C. Begins making annual working trips to Hale County, Alabama and surrounding areas.
1973 October-Visits Hale County, Alabama with Walker Evans.
1974-75 Completes Sprott Church, his first building construction inspired by photographs. Included in the exhibitionsStraight Color,Rochester Institute of Art, Rochester, New York;14 American Photographers,Baltimore Museum of Art; and Light/Sculpture,William Hayes Ackland Memorial Art Center, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
1976 First solo show in New York at Zabriskie Gallery, with sculpture and photographs.
1977 Begins photographing with 8-by-10-inch Deardorff camera.
1979 Majority of pieces inThe Klan Roomare stolen from the artist's studio by persons unknown. First Dream Building completed. Included in American Photography of the Seventies, Art Institute of Chicago.
1980 Makes first Southern Monument. Included inZeitgenössische Amerikanische Farbphotographie, Galerie Rodolf Kicken, Cologne, Germany.
1981 Included in The New Color: A Decade of Color Photography, International Center of Photography, New York.
1982 Awarded Lyndhurst Foundation Prize.
1983 Aperture publishes his first major monograph,William Christenberry: Southern Photographs.Visits Hale County, Alabama, with Lee Friedlander.
1984 Awarded John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship.
1985 First solo exhibition, Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York. Included in American Images: Photography, 1945-1980, Barbican Art Gallery, London; Color Roots - William Eggleston - William Christenberry, Burden Gallery, Aperture, New York; and A Second Talent: Painters and Sculptors Who Are Also Photographers, Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Ridgefield, Connecticut.
1989 Awarded the Alabama Prize. Included in The Photography of Invention: American Pictures of the 1980s, National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
1991 Honored as Eudora Welty Professor of Southern Studies, Millsaps College, Jackson, Mississippi.
1991, '93 Visiting artist (painting), Yale University Summer School of Art and Music, Norfolk, Connecticut.
1994 Awarded Art Matters grant, New York. Included in Duchamp's Leg, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; and Worlds in a Box, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London.
1996 University Press of Mississippi publishes Christenberry: Reconstruction, the Art of William Christenberry. An exhibition of the same name is organized by the Center for Creative Photography, Tucson, Arizona. Receives the University of Memphis Distinguished Achievement Award in Memory of Elvis Presley.
1998 Named Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa.
2001-2 Richter Verlag publishes William Christenberry: Disappearing Places; an exhibition of the same name is presented at the Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur, Cologne, Germany, and at the Palais des Beaux- Arts, Brussels. Included in the Nature Conservancy's exhibition In Response to Place: Photographs from the Nature Conservancy's Last Great Places, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
2003 Artist in residence, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire. Included in Lee Friedlander/William Christenberry, Galerie Thomas Zander, Cologne, Germany.
2004 Included in Picturing the South: William Christenberry, William Eggleston, Walker Evans, Alex Soth, Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York.
2005 Weil Fellow, Auburn University, Montgomery, Alabama.
2006 July 1 - Passing Time: The Art of William Christenberry opens at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.