(17/55) William Christenberry - artist/photographer



William Christenberry is not perhaps a household name in the world of photography. And even, for those familiar with his work, he's probably not considered as a major figure.
It's always difficult to speculate why others have very different viewpoints to one's own but 
I suspect the reasons for this may lie with the subject matter of his photographs, which are more well known than his other art, and which feature places or locales more readily associated with other photographers (Walker Evans & William Eggleston in particular.) Also perhaps because they are very specific and descriptive of places and scenes within a defined range of geographies they can seem, well, formulaic.

It's a shame for a country so big, there often doesn't seem to me at any rate, any space (or enough critical elasticity) for more than one or 2 photographers to be mining similar material.

And this is exactly why I suspect Christenberry is not better known. Not just the fact that his work coincidentally features specific locations featured in some of Walker Evans most well known work but also the fact that his photography, from Brownie camera to Leica to 10x8 plate camera documents specific individual places again and again over a period of decades. Maybe to some these don't seem like the work habits of a photographer working at the top of their game. Maybe he doesn't seem that well, adventurous, if exotic locations and scenes are your idea of what characterises the work of  'great' photographers.

Building with False Brick Siding (1985)
copyright William Christenberry / respective copyright holders
To add to the melee, he also makes meticulous sculptures & also paintings of the 
same places & buildings as those featured in his photographs. Near exacting near-replicas often set on red clay from Alabama, and devoid of any surrounding landscape.
Again, for purists or camera hobbyists not perhaps the habit of a 'serious' photographer?
But these views seriously misunderstand and understate the work Christenberry has been making for decades and the true value of his work.

William Christenberry grew up in Hale County, Alabama—the same county made famous in many of Walker Evans' most well known photographs, and what became the principal subject of his art.  In fact, Christenberry, a painter and sculptor who began taking photographs as aids for paintings, sought Evans out for advice. 
Evans, impressed by the younger man’s camera work convinced Christenberry to seriously pursue his photography, as he had done with many promising younger talents. He is reported to have told him "young man, you know exactly where to stand".

The full range of his colour photographs show a remarkable evolution, unified by the same meticulous vision. At the start of his career, he began using a basic Kodak "Brownie" camera, but as photographic vision evolved he started using a 35mm cameras, progressing (evolving?) to the use of larger field cameras producing large, denser images of the same range of subject matter.  

"Tenant House II" by William Christenberry.(1960) Oil on canvas 
copyright William Christenberry / respective copyright holders
Coleman's Cafe, Greensboro (1967) Brownie camera
copyright William Christenberry / respective copyright holders
Grave with Egg Carton Cross, Hale County, Alabama (1975) Brownie camera
copyright William Christenberry / respective copyright holders

One of the curious side effects of being a 'hyphenate' photographer-artist, is that artists often assiduously collect things.
In the case of Christenberry this includes a collectors interest in the actual objects he's photographed. As he confessed in a 1996 interview I have an extensive collection of outdoor signs..that I’ve been finding and stealing for years.’ 

In fact, whether or not he was aware of it, this was a 'practice' shared by Walker Evans, who found great joy in later life 'liberating' signs he had photographed, with the aid of an accomplice and a fast car.


 Alabama Wall” (1975)
a series of found metal signs collected by Christenberry

copyright William Christenberry / respective copyright holders

Side of Palmist Building, Havana Junction, Alabama (1971) 
Brownie camera
copyright William Christenberry / respective copyright holders

Side of Palmist Building, Havana Junction, Alabama (1973)
copyright William Christenberry / respective copyright holders

Palmist Hand (close view), Havana Junction, Alabama, (1980)
copyright William Christenberry / respective copyright holders

As someone attuned to the culture of the deep south, it was perhaps inevitable that Christenberry would turn his attention to the subject of racism and to the Klu Klux Klan.
As he said in an interview “I’ve always been trying to come to grips with where I’m from, what I’ve loved and what I’ve been ashamed of.’

In a series of  paintings, sculptures, and dolls to express his abhorrence of the Ku Klux Klan. 
The doll (below) is actually a GI Joe figure dressed in the authentic ceremonial robes of the Klan. One of more than sixty “KKK” dolls made by Christenberry from 1963 -1979. 

Given the heated debates on racism in the US, his work has triggered arguments about whether they should be 'censored' - e.g. that this wasn't a fit or permitted subject for art or (worse) that some viewers felt that the pieces were an attempt to glorify the group

In 1979 someone (some people?) broke into Christenberry's studio, stealing dolls and other objects from their cases , but leaving everything else untouched. 
It was telling that a KKK member from Georgia reported their 'disgust' with Christenberry’s works, calling the artist a “nigger lover” (Washington Post, April 24, 1983). So obviously neither a discerning art critic or a happy bigot.

KKK Doll (1963)
copyright William Christenberry / respective copyright holders
The original impetus for his work, odd as it may sound, wasn't visual art but literature. And in particular the writings of William Faulkner, a native of Oxford, Mississippi. 
(To see the distance between Oxford, Mississippi and Hale County click here)

When I look at Christenberry's work in total. What I think of more and more, is memory and description. Ideas and themes that allude more perhaps to literature than art.

I also think of time. How time changes things and places remorselessly. Sometimes passively and slowly. And sometimes like the action of a wrecking ball, suddenly and violently.

As a photographer who also writes, this illusory almost invisible thread is for me what binds much of the work. And of course the invisible stories of the living mostly human landscape he's been photographing for decades. 
The images of empty houses, churches and abandoned stores recall people and their stories.


Church, Sprott, Alabama (1971)
Brownie camera
copyright William Christenberry / respective copyright holders
Church, Sprott (sculpted from memory)
copyright William Christenberry / respective copyright holders

Christenberry has told the story of a building in one of his photographs, a white, rudimentary building and of a one-armed man who had built it and lived there. The man, a veteran from World War II had asked Christenberry for work, which Christenberry was unable to provide. By the time Christenberry returned the next year on his annual trip home, the man had frozen to death in the dirt-floor house.


And more.
 A woman who lived in an unevenly painted shack which he'd photographed. “She told me they painted their house `only as far as we can reach.’

And more stories.
In 1965, Christenberry’s father pointed out a potential photograph – an iron bedstead in a field of grass. “A man came up to me and told me he knew the man whose bed that was,’ according to Christenberry. “He said that his grave was marked with that bed.’

Stories and memories. At the heart of some of the most memorable photography.
Photographs without people. That nonetheless are full of the presence and spirit of those who have inhabited these unique landscapes.


Horseshoe liquor store, Beale st, Memphis 1966
copyright William Christenberry / respective copyright holders

Barber pole, Beale St. Memphis 1966
copyright William Christenberry / respective copyright holders

Wallace Headquarters, Memphis 1967
copyright William Christenberry / respective copyright holders

Cannon's Grocery, nr Greensboro, Alabama 1976
copyright William Christenberry / respective copyright holders

Storefronts, Memphis 1973
copyright William Christenberry / respective copyright holders

Cotton Gin, Havana Junction 1975
copyright William Christenberry / respective copyright holders

Child's Grave with pink rosebuds, Hale County, Alabama 1975
copyright William Christenberry / respective copyright holders

Church Sign, Tuscaloosa County, Alabama 1976
copyright William Christenberry / respective copyright holders

Egg carton flowers on grave, hale county, alabama 1977
copyright William Christenberry / respective copyright holders

Child's Grave with Lamb, hale county, alabama 1981
copyright William Christenberry / respective copyright holders

Otis & Willie Mae Hick's store, near Greensboro, Alabama 1987
copyright William Christenberry / respective copyright holders

 China Grove church, hale county, alabama 1974
copyright William Christenberry / respective copyright holders

White building, newbern, alabama 1991
copyright William Christenberry / respective copyright holders

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