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  • “Those little color snapshots”William Christenberry
  • William R. Ferris (bio)

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William Christenberry: “I’m fascinated by rural graveyards, where people will make the most wonderful objects out of necessity. If they can’t afford to buy elaborate flower decorations, they will make things, in this case out of egg cartons.” Grave, With Egg Carton Cross, Hale County, Alabama, 1975, vintage Kodak Brownie, 3½″ × 5″, courtesy of Hemphill Fine Arts.

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Church, Sprott, Alabama, 1977, vintage Kodak Brownie, 3½″ × 5″.


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Building with False Brick Siding, Warsaw, Alabama, 1974, vintage Kodak brownie, 3½″ × 5″.


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Building with False Brick Siding (as in earlier photograph directly above), Warsaw, Alabama, 1991, archival pigment print, 44″ × 55″, Edition of 9.

Photographs by William Christenberry, courtesy of Hemphill Fine Arts.

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William Christenberry, William Eggleston, and Walker Evans have defined southern photography just as profoundly as Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren, and C. Vann Woodward shaped southern literature and history. Both groups are bound by their deep love for the American South and by their admiration for one another’s work—an admiration that I share. Walker Evans first introduced me to Bill Christenberry’s work in 1973, shortly after he and Bill had traveled together to Hale County, Alabama. I met Bill not long after that trip, and we have been close friends ever since.

Our understanding of sense of place and how it shapes southerners is significantly deepened by Bill Christenberry’s vision for his work. His desire to “possess” dog-trot houses, country stores, and churches in Hale County first led him to photograph, then build miniature sculptures of these buildings. Once completed, he placed each building on a base of red clay soil that he brought from Alabama. While these buildings evoke pastoral memories of the rural South, Christenberry is not afraid to challenge romantic notions about his home region, as he strives to “[deal] with what I see as both the beautiful aspects of where I’m from and also . . . the ugly or dark aspects.” Calling his Ku Klux Klan series “the most difficult to express,” he summons the terror of Klan violence in tableaus that reveal “a strange and secret brutality.”

Bill Christenberry is nurtured by his Hale County roots and has drawn on them throughout his teaching career at the Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington, D.C., where he has worked since 1968. Just as William Faulkner created the mythic Yoknapatawpha County to frame his literary legacy, Christenberry draws on his own “little postage stamp of native soil” in Hale County as inspiration for his photography, painting, and sculpture.

This interview was recorded and filmed during the summer of 1983 at Bill Christenberry’s studio in Washington, D.C., as part of my film Painting in the South. The film accompanied an exhibit, “Painting in the South: 1564–1980,” organized by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, Virginia.

William Christenberry, in his own words . . .

My interest in photography comes out of a background in painting. As a student at the University of Alabama in the mid to late 1950s, I began to look around West Central Alabama (the part of Alabama that I’m from) and see things that I wanted to try to paint, but I didn’t know how to go about it. Santa Claus had brought me and my sister a small Brownie camera in the late 1940s, and I just loaded it with color film and went out to that Alabama landscape and began to photograph what caught my eye, especially rural architecture and graveyards in [End Page 63] the country. Back in the studio, those little color snapshots were references for paintings that were quite expressionistic—a lot of gesture and rich surface quality, but with subject matter.


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“Santa Claus had brought me and my sister a small Brownie camera in the late 1940s, and I just loaded it with color film and went out to that Alabama landscape and began...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 61-70
Launched on MUSE
2011-05-27
Open Access
No
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