William Christenberry


Artist Profile William Christenberry

William Christenberry is a renowned photographer, painter, and sculptor whose work relates to his upbringing in the South, particularly Hale County, Alabama. As early as the late 1950s, Christenberry used a Kodak Brownie, an amateur's camera that he first received as a childhood Christmas gift, to produce small three-by-five-inch color snapshots, which he saw as sketches for his other forms of art. Around 1962, photographer Walker Evans encouraged the young Christenberry to make photographs of the South, a place that he knew intimately but had not previously considered as a subject. Slide film and 35 mm cameras became a standard part of his photographic practice, along with an assortment of Brownie cameras that produced color negatives.

Since 1968, Christenberry has lived in Washington D.C. and taught at the Corcoran College of Art and Design. Yet each year he embarks on a pilgrimage to revisit and photograph the South. Drawn to country churches, graves and cemeteries, signs, shacks, and tumbledown buildings, all of which are repeated throughout his visual lexicon, the photographer captures quiet moments from his upbringing and documents the physical changes wrought by the passing of time. For Christenberry, photography provides not only a way to document his native land but also an entry into the realms of memory and imagination.

In House and Car, Near Akron, Alabama, Christenberry discovers and rediscovers a familiar image from his youth-a house and a car turned ramshackle-resulting in a suite of twenty photographs over the course of twenty-seven years. The grid, a visual device preferred by the artist, presents the fate of the house and car as it unfolds in sequential order. The once shiny blue car becomes tireless, rusted out, and overgrown by nature. The bustling house is abandoned by its tenants, and its skeletal wood frame collapses on itself over time. Seen in their declining years, the house and car physically sink back into the earth in a slow progression, echoing the underlying themes of time, memory, and loss recurring in all of Christenberry's work.

It is not surprising that Evans once described such color snapshots as “perfect little poems,” each one integral to the larger story of Christenberry's rural Alabama and the vernacular of Southern photography as first recorded by such pioneering artists.

Photograph by Chan Chao, Washington, DC.