Since the early 1960s, William Christenberry has plumbed the regional identity of the American South, focusing his attention on his hometown, Hale County, Alabama. Widely recognized as a pioneer in the field of color photography, Christenberry’s work draws inspiration from Walker Evans, while paralleling the work of international practitioners such as Bernd and Hilla Becher. Ranging from his earliest Brownie photographs to his later work with a large-format camera, William Christenberry Photographs, 1961–2005 is a survey of the artist’s poetic documentation of the southern vernacular landscape and architecture that surrounded him growing up. The exhibition, which comprises fifty vintage photographic works and one sculpture—coupling never-before-seen photographs with images that are now iconic—reveals how the history, the very story of place, is at the heart of Christenberry’s project. While the focus of his work is the American South, it touches on universal themes relating to family, culture, nature, spirituality, memory, and aging. Christenberry photographs real things in the real world—ramshackle buildings, weathered commercial signs, lonely back roads, rusted-out cars, white-washed churches, decorated graves. Dutifully returning to photograph the same locations annually—the green barn, the palmist building, the Bar-B-Q Inn, among others—he fulfills a personal ritual and documents the physical changes wrought by the passing of a year. Straddling the past and present, Christenberry’s art evokes the form and power of the passage of time.
The exhibitions at Aperture and the Smithsonian are accompanied by a stunning catalog entitled William Christenberry, published by Aperture in conjunction with the Smithsonian American Art Museum this month. The book is a comprehensive survey, presenting all aspects of the artist’s oeuvre as he intends it to be viewed and considered. More than half the work is previously unpublished. The book showcases not only the artist’s photographs, for which he is best known, but also his sculpture, drawing, painting, and found object assemblage.