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1 December 2016
The world lost an original this week when William Christenberry passed away at the age of 80 in a Washington, D.C. nursing home. The ravages of time on the place he loved was his subject. And that place was Hale County in Alabama.
That was where his grandfathers had farmed. His father had not been able to afford to finish college, working as a delivery man, dairy salesman and insurance salesman.
Born in 1935, Christenberry (the "t" is silent) was encouraged to go to college but it wasn't until he got a financial settlement for an eye injury that he could afford to attend the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa. He earned a BA in 1958 and an MFA in 1959.
He had studied painting there under Melville Price who told him to leave the state to see the world. So in 1961 Christenberry moved to New York.
He had, the previous year, been moved by Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which featured a text by James Agee along with Walker Evans' photographs of Hale County from 1936. He realized his family knew many of the sharecroppers in the photos.
So when he found himself in New York, he took a deep breath and introduced himself to Evans. It was the beginning of a life-long friendship in which they exchanged ideas and even visited Hale County together in 1973.
'They are not self-portraits. But they're everything I know.'
But the friendship reaped immediate rewards for the young Christenberry when Evans lobbied for him to be employed as a file clerk in the picture department at Time-Life, 10 floors above Evans, who worked as an editor at Fortune magazine.
In later years, Christenberry reflected that the difference between their approaches. "His view was objective," Christenberry said of Evans. "My stance is very subjective. The place is so much a part of me. I can't escape it and have no desire to escape it. I continue to come to grips with it."
There was, however, an important technical difference. Christenberry's images were all in color. Originally he had taken the photos as color studies for his first love, painting.
As a photographer Christenberry was not a technician. He and his sister were given a Kodak Brownie for Christmas in 1944 and he used that camera his whole life to record Hale County. "Young man, you know exactly where to stand with that little camera," Evans once told him.
In the 1980s, Christenberry used an 8x10 view camera to produce larger prints than the small postcard-sized color images he had become famous for. And earlier he shot 35mm to use Kodachrome slide film for its rich color. But he never let go of that Brownie and later in life he returned to it.
He returned to Hale County every summer, wandering the countryside to photograph the South. "They are not self-portraits," he once said. "But they're everything I know."
Married in 1967, he and his wife moved to Washington, D.C. to raise their family of three children. There he taught painting and drawing at Washington's Corcoran School of the Arts and Design from 1968 to 2009.
In addition to his photography, he continued to paint and to sculpt often small recreations of Hale County buildings he had photographed using dirt from the location as part of the piece.
The place was his muse, he said.
He won fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. His works have often been featured in books and are in the collections of the Corcoran Gallery in the National Gallery of Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Whitney Museum of Art, among others.
And a new exhibition titled Laying-by Time will open Dec. 9 at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore.
Laying-by time was what the slaves called their days off after Christmas and may in Christenberry's case modestly argue his art was his avocation. But the phrase "lay by" has another meaning in the South. It means "to tend a crop for the last time, leaving it to mature without cultivation."
Christenberry is no longer able to cultivate his art having left it for the last time, but it will now mature in the imagination of anyone who sees this original body of work.