By Erin Dunn, Telfair Museums Assistant Curator
Hailing from the small town of Ringgold, GA, I feel an affinity to any artist who calls the South home, but especially to those who make the region their muse. The juxtapositions and mixed metaphors so central to the Southern environment were firmly captured by Tuscaloosa-born artist William Christenberry. He passed away on Monday, November 28, 2016 and the art world lost a giant. Although Christenberry taught and lived in Washington, D.C. for most of his adult life, his artwork stayed firmly grounded in the soil of the Black Belt, the region of Alabama where he spent his youth. When I began organizing my exhibition Watershed: Contemporary Landscape Photography, which was on view in the Jepson Center’s Levitt and Varnedoe Galleries, Christenberry’s photograph of a small, humble white church in Sprott Alabama was an easy choice to include. The church demonstrated how cultural staples of humanity encroach on the landscape, not necessarily making it worse or better, but certainly staking a claim in the ground. Christenberry was drawn to this little church during a Christmas road trip to visit his parents in 1971. He saw the church “isolated in the landscape” and stopped to take a photograph. This quick snapshot of 1971 continued to “haunt” Christenberry (he insists in the good sense of the word), until he was able to make a sculpture of it and take more photographs. He was captivated by the beauty evident in the proportional towers of the church, elements he found essential to the vernacular architecture of the region. Telfair’s version of the church is from a subsequent trip in 1981 when Christenberry started working with an 8 x 10 large-format that brought out the crispness in the fading details of the old building.
Another reason I find William Christenberry so compelling is his lineage in art history in the mid-20th century. Originally intending to be a painter after receiving his MFA from the University of Alabama, he stumbled across Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941) by Walker Evans and James Agee in a bookstore. This book depicted sharecroppers during the Great Depression from Hale County, Alabama, where his grandparents lived. In fact, his grandparents knew some of the farmers shown in the photographs. Christenberry then realized that his sense of place, his consciousness of the South could become his art. Later, when he lived in New York for a short while he met Walker Evans who encouraged him to pursue photography since, up to that point, Christenberry had been firmly invested in painting. In turn, a young photographer named William Eggleston later came to Christenberry’s studio and saw the small color snapshots of Alabama hung on the walls and decided to pursue color photography himself. Many consider Eggleston to be the forerunner of color photography, but he readily admits that Christenberry was his inspiration.
Christenberry’s work always seemed possessive of the South–a need to document and capture and depict before time and progress took over. He described his connection to the region as a “love affair,” but that doesn’t mean he ignored the dark side to a land often trapped in the amber of time. Christenberry made figures—both sculpturally and two dimensionally—of Ku Klux Klan members. He depicted the pointed hood and slitted eyes repeatedly as a way to provoke discussion on a tense issue of southern history, but also to come to grips with the terrible vein pulsing in the land he loved and grew up in. Several of his prints of klansman will be exhibited at Telfair Museums in the spring in the ongoing permanent collection exhibition Complex Uncertainties: Artists in Postwar America and will certainly prompt discussion in the way that Christenberry intended.
Driving backroads in Georgia, I see buildings all the time like the ones that continued to haunt William Christenberry during his lifetime. His photographs capture them in a way that I never tend to see them in real life, though. Instead of crumbling, lost-to-time monuments, Christenberry grants them purpose and history. While he often photographs one building or one point of interest, he doesn’t mean to isolate, but rather to search for points of connection in our humanity. One of his quotes comes to mind:
“What I really feel very strongly about, and I hope reflects in all aspects of my work, is the human touch, the humanness of things, the positive and sometimes the negative and sometimes the sad.”