Remembering photographer William Christenberry.
The American artist William Christenberry, who died at age eighty last November, received a Brownie camera for Christmas when he was a young boy. The first photos he took included images of graveyards. One is tempted to read prophecies into that opening act. The motif of Christenberry’s art had always been the rural South. The beloved “postage stamp of native soil” he photographed every year for several decades was in Hale County, Alabama, where he was born and grew up. Graveyard themes such as death and decay are easily attached to the Deep South, which languished during the postwar boom; so it seems natural to attach the same themes to Christenberry’s work, interpreting his graveyard debut as the apt initiation into a career centered on a place that was, if only by virtue of its persistent southernness, slowly going to seed.
But this would be unfair to both Christenberry and the landscape he explored through drawing, painting, sculpture, and, most notably, photography. Critics (and, it seems, obituary writers) use the same kinds of words to characterize Christenberry’s work. He documented and he chronicled. He captured the decay and the creep of time. The structures he ritualistically photographed—churches, country stores, rusty signs, abandoned houses, murals, barns—were weathered as they faded into history. The terminology of disintegration is not inaccurate here, but by itself, it reduces Christenberry’s oeuvre to something close to nostalgia.
The refined intensity of Christenberry’s mission to “possess”—his word—the Hale County landscape requires a more expansive idiom that affirms the essential (and easily overlooked) accomplishment of the region’s iconography: It endured. When asked to explain what exactly appealed to him about, say, a lone green warehouse in a field that he photographed for decades, he replied, “It was the perfect subject. Not because it was green, but just because it was there.” With the urbanized (and suburbanized) New South rising from the ashes, Christenberry celebrated the fact that most of his chosen objects—from fading murals to egg-carton graves to old Baptist churches—abided. His artistic mandate was to return annually and reclaim them.