“Palmist Building (Summer), Havana Junction, Alabama,” 1980.
“Palmist Building (Winter), Havana Junction, Alabama,” 1981.
Sarah Edwards: The photographer William Christenberry was often described as a chronicler of a decaying American South. It is true that in much of his work—shots of older buildings emptied of people, beams gap-toothed and nature ready to overtake—there is an attraction to what is passing, or what has passed. But Christenberry rejected the idea that his work was a lamentation or an elegy…“I feel that I’m very much in love with where I’m from. I find some old things more beautiful than the new, and I continue to seek those places out, and I go back to them every year until sooner or later they are gone.”
Teju Cole: He was born in Tuscaloosa, Ala., in 1936, and though he later moved to Washington, D.C., where he lived for decades, his work centered on yearly returns to Alabama. Some of his photographs were stand-alone shots of a given subject. But he often created series by returning to the same sites, whose appearances were subtly inflected from year to year by the cycle of the seasons, or fundamentally altered, either by neglect or renovation…Christenberry was drawn to shacks, simple churches, barns and makeshift buildings, but also to the red dust and wild vegetation of the region, especially the kudzu that grew ferociously on the roadsides and gradually reclaimed whatever was left undefended. […] Looking at such a series confirms that when you make one photograph and, some time later, make another of the same thing, what is inside the frame changes. With the passage of time, you no longer have “the same thing.” […] This inexactness of framing helps us understand that what makes these images valuable is not the differences among them, but the way a pair of stills can, simply and elegantly, pin down a central concern of human life: the passage of time….Why did William Christenberry keep returning to Hale County? … I can’t help sensing in these works, which photographically verify the passing hours or days or years, a quiet gratitude about the simple fact of return.
Matt Schudel: Every summer, Mr. Christenberry wandered the Alabama countryside, taking pictures of lonely places that dripped with the essence of the South, even though they never showed a human being.“Whenever someone asks why I always photograph in Alabama,” Mr. Christenberry told photography critic Andy Grundberg in 2001, “I have to answer that, yes, I know there are other places, but Alabama is where my heart is.”
William Christenberry died on November 28, 2016 at a nursing home in Washington. He was 80. The cause was complications from Alzheimer’s disease.
Find other photographs here: William Christenberry.
- Sarah Edwards, William Christenberry’s American South (The New Yorker, December 6, 2016)
- Teju Cole, The Image of Time (The New York Times, January 31, 2017)
- Matt Schudel, William Christenberry, artist of a crumbling, memory-haunted South, dies at 80 (The Washington Post, November 29, 2016)
- Wikipedia Bio: William Christenberry