I have had a couple of opportunities to hear artist William Christenberry speak and on each occasion he recounted how his mother worried that, based on his work, people would think that Alabama was just some “rusted out, worn down, bullet-ridden place.”
Christenberry’s work focuses on memories of a fading South and his photographs capture buildings and landscapes in decay. He often photographs the same places year after year and documents how places evolve or disappear or ultimately break down completely.
One such sequence, the “Palmist Building” series begun in 1961, is among Christenberry’s iconic images. The earliest photographs of the building show an abandoned and dilapidated wooden structure. A sign advertising a palmist has been placed upside down in a broken window as protection from the weather. Subsequent images over years show the progression of the building’s decay amidst growing vegetation. In the later images, the building is completely gone, and trees, vegetation, wire fencing, and a utility pole stand beside a lonely road. Similar photographic series include “Church, Sprott, Alabama,” “Green Warehouse,” and “Coleman Café.”
I have never shared Mrs. Christenberry’s concern about her son’s work, but she addresses a basic misunderstanding of the South by people who don’t really know the place. By capturing fade and decay, Christenberry is preserving images of a South that is disappearing … has largely disappeared. His predilection for finding and recording old buildings, abandoned places, overgrown landscapes – a predilection I share and which makes Christenberry’s work special to me – is driven by a need to bear witness rather than by nostalgia. Christenberry focuses on rural landscapes but the impulse seems to me to be the same as my attraction to rust and industrial decay found in urban environments. Some misinterpret these images as representations of what the South is today but Christenberry captures and honors them as a rapidly disappearing landscape.
William Christenberry was born in 1936 in Tuscaloosa and left Alabama in 1961 to live and work in New York, Memphis, and finally Washington, D.C. where he has lived and taught at the Corcoran since 1968. Still, his preferred landscape for his art focuses on the environs of Alabama’s “Black Belt,” an area of rich black soil that cuts through the center of the state, where both sets of his grandparents resided. Hale County, “ground zero” for Christenberry’s art, was also the location for James Agee and Walker Evans’s iconic Depression-era book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a hypnotic and microscopic examination of the lives of three Alabama tenant farm families.
Occasionally, as I drive around the Black Belt in west Alabama, I will accidentally stumble across a place that Christenberry has photographed. I am startled at the discovery, stunned at the recognition, and often feel like I have witnessed some elusive ancient treasure.
Christenberry’s art encompasses painting and drawing, sculpture, and assemblage but he is primarily known for his photography. It was photographer Walker Evans himself who became a sort of mentor to Christenberry when they met in New York in the early 1960s after Christenberry finished his M.F.A. at Alabama. Evans steered Christenberry along the path of a concentration on photography after viewing snapshots Christenberry had made with a cheap Brownie camera as studies for expressionist paintings.
Often, in his sculptures, Christenberry takes the same buildings he has photographed and does three-dimensional reproductions of them, often resting on an authentic bed of Alabama red clay in a shallow box. Over time, these more realistic depictions have given way to solid white “dream buildings” and ghostly structures drawn from memory and iconographic imagery – ladders, gourds, signs, structures on stilts. Christenberry’s evocative art never tells the viewer what to think; he presents it and allows one to ponder and meditate on it, to explore the implications.
There are many books of Christenberry’s art available. These would be of interest to the uninitiated as well as those who already know the artist’s work. A couple of my favorites are Trudy Wilner Stack’s Christenberry Reconstruction: The Art of William Christenberry (1996) and William Christenberry (2006) with thoughtful essays by Walter Hopps, Andy Grundberg, and Howard N. Fox.
My articles about William Christenberry and Walker Evans with several multimedia links may be found at http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org.