Robert Hirsch

The Muse of Place & Time
An Interview With William Christenberry

From Afterimage Magazine • November/December 2005
By Robert Hirsch

Side of Palmist Building, Havana Junction, Alabama (1961) © William Christenberry; Courtesy of Pace/MacGill Gallery

William Christenberry, born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in 1936, is a photographer, painter, sculptor, teacher, and arts advocate who is considered one of the most influential southern artists working today. Christenberry's honors include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. Major exhibitions of his work have been held at the Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts; the Center for Creative Photography, Tucson, Arizona; Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Die Photographische Sammlung, SK Stiftung Kultur, Cologne, Germany; and Institute of the Arts, Rice University, Houston, Texas. Publications by and about Christenberry include Of Time and Place: Walker Evans and William Christenberry (1990) by Thomas W. Southall; Christenberry Reconstruction: The Art of William Christenberry (1996) by Trudy Wilner Stack, Christenberry, and Allen Tullos; and William Christenberry: Disappearing Places (2002) by Christenberry, Susanne Lange, and Claudia Schubert.This interview is the culmination of numerous conversations between Christenberry and the author from October 2004 through August 2005.

Robert Hirsch: Describe your family background in Tuscaloosa, and its impact on your work.

William Christenberry: It has been said that I was born in Hale County, but I was actually born in the city of Tuscaloosa, which is just a few miles north. My grandparents on both sides, the Smith Family and the Christenberry Family, were farming families in Hale County. It was made, however you want to look at it, famous or infamous, in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men [1939], which is a coincidence since James Agee and Walker Evans were there in the summer of 1936 putting that work together. I was born in November 1936, so I tell people that I didn't meet them [laughter]. I was born and raised in Tuscaloosa, went to high school there, and to the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. My summer forays past and present into Hale County are constant. Since the early 1960s that's the only time of year and about the only place I make photographs. My earliest color snapshot is from 1960.

RH: Why do you think that you haven't photographed anywhere else?

WC: This is and always will be where my heart is. It is what I care about. Everything I want to say through my work comes out of my feelings about that place - its positive aspects and its negative aspects. It's one of the poorest counties in the state, but it is also a county with great lore and legend. In the nineteenth century it must have been like Gone With the Wind, a place with great southern plantations. It became clear to me during my graduate studies [1958-59, at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa] that I wanted to express my feelings about this place. To paraphrase William Faulkner, "There is enough to write about on this little stamp-sized state called Mississippi to occupy me all of my life."I don't know of any other way of putting it. You might say I have never made pictures elsewhere. My pictures of our family are pedestrian snapshots. I've been to Big Sur, California and other exotic places and technically the pictures were fine, but I have never taken the big camera to places like that.

RH: What else influenced you at this time?

WC: I was reading Russian and southern U.S. literature. I read a short story by James Agee, whom I had never heard of, and later I came across a copy of the second printing of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. I showed it to my grandmother, and she said, "This is Mrs. Tingle, that's Mr. Tingle, that's Sadie, that's William…." I may have been the first person to put that puzzle together, who these people were as all their names had been changed to protect their privacy. More importantly, Agee was doing what I wanted to try to do visually - experimenting with ways to address issues of social responsibility and human dignity. It was something to sink my teeth into.

RH: Did any teacher influence you in graduate school?

WC: I had a wonderful graduate advisor, Melville Price. He was Jewish, and I say that because it enters into the story. Mel was a second generation abstract expressionist painter who had been teaching at the Philadelphia Museum School in Pennsylvania and chose to come to Alabama in 1958. He was haunted by the Holocaust. He was extremely well read and was very affected by what was happening in the South. He was a wonderful dark-skinned white man with jet-black hair who was often mistaken for a light-skinned black man. He introduced me to Dada and surrealism. A few years later I began teaching drawing at Tuscaloosa. I might still be there had it not been for Mel. One day he and I were having coffee. He just said to me out of the blue, "Bill, if you don't get out of here, you're going to be forever trapped here." I knew he was right. So a year later, in 1960, I went to the big city - New York.

RH: That must have been a quite a change.

WC: Talk about a growing up time! It was a transition from something in which I had been totally immersed - abstract expressionism - to the coming of pop art. I had eight different jobs in twelve months. I had a Master's degree, but I did not want to teach. I sold men's clothes in Greenwich Village. I was a custodian in Norman Vincent Peale's church on Fifth Avenue. My job was to take care of the sanctuary and keep an eye on the crucifix above the altar as it had been stolen previously. I spent most of my time there reading Albert Camus. Next I worked for a gallery on Madison Avenue, and finally I ended up as a file clerk on the twenty-eighth floor in the picture collection at Time-Life. It did not pay a lot of money, but each week I got a free copy of Time, LIFE, and Sports Illustrated [laughter]. And that was where Walker Evans worked as a senior editor for Fortune, on the eighteenth floor.

RH: How did you first encounter Walker Evans?

WC: Months went by before I got up enough nerve to see him. He was extremely cordial and offered me an autographed copy of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. I was so nervous I said, "Thank you sir, but I already have several copies." He clicked the pen and closed the book. He didn't say a word. It took me several years to get a signed copy [laughter]. As our friendship grew, he would say, "Tell me that story, Bill," and he would laugh. That struck up this long friendship until his death in 1975.

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