Robert Hirsch

The Muse of Place & Time
An Interview With William Christenberry

Page 2 Continued

RH: What were the circumstances that led to you traveling with Evans back to Alabama?

WC: In 1973 the University of Alabama's Art Department decided to put on an Evans exhibition. Previously Walker shied away from those things, but he was genuinely interested in the fact that another generation was looking at those pictures. He agreed to go to Alabama if I went with him. During the flight Walker said, "This is the only time that I have returned since 1936." Walker was very sensitive to the privacy of those people. He said, "I want to see any and all of the structures that I photographed that are still standing, but I do not want to see any of the people that may be still living. What I really want to do is photograph and see the things that have caught your eye over the years."

RH: Why do you think that he did not want to meet any of the people?

WC: Agee inserted himself in their lives while Walker kept a certain distance. They were two different personalities. One night I asked Walker about their collaboration and these were his exact words, "I'll tell you something Bill. If you knew a great man, you don't go around mouthing it openly." I didn't ask him anymore. It wasn't spoken in an arrogant or ugly way, it was just factual.

RH: How do you see Agee today?

Palmist Building (1980) © William Christenberry; Courtesy of Pace/McGill

WC: Periodically I take Let Us Now Praise Famous Men off of the shelf and read passages. It was never a book I felt comfortable reading from beginning to end. When I discovered it in 1960, it took me six weeks to read. It is basically a long prose poem meant to be read aloud, and I could only take so much of that at one time.

RH: When did you leave New York?

WC: I went to New York in 1960 and left in the summer of 1962 to accept a teaching position at Memphis State University [Memphis, Tennessee], which is now the University of Memphis.

RH: What year did you start making photographs with your Kodak Brownie?

WC: The earliest one that I have is 1958.

RH: What was your initial impulse to use a Brownie?

WC: It was a little 127 Brownie Holiday that Santa Claus had brought one year. It was in a chest of drawers in my parents' house. As a painting student, I wanted to reference the landscape and things in the landscape, mostly the vernacular architecture, in my painting. This prevails in my work to this day. Although everybody else was painting non-objectively, I made Tenant House #1 [1960]. Not only was it pivotal in my painting, but my photographic work too.

RH: Why did you work in color during a time when black and white defined art photography?

WC: Back in the studio it was the color reference, the memory jog that was important to my paintings.

RH: How was your 127 film processed and cared for?

WC: The pictures were processed at the local drugstore in Tuscaloosa and printed on fiber-based paper, which has held up remarkably well. It is my nature to take reasonably good care of whatever I do, and I stored the negatives in a cool dark closet. I can still print from the Brownie negatives from the 1960s, and many will be reproduced in the new Aperture book. I also dry-mounted those little 3 x 5-inch drugstore processed snapshots onto pieces of mat board with a three-inch border, which was fortunate because it gave them support. I would tack the mat board up on the wall next to this huge piece of canvas, so that I could use it as a reference for the colors and forms. They were not photo-realism paintings, but expressionistic paintings that look somewhat like a combination of Chaïm Soutine and Willem de Kooning in the same painting.

RH: How did Evans come to see your Brownie photographs?

WC: I mentioned them in passing while I was showing him my large canvases, and he said he would like to see them. I gave him a box with sixty-six Brownies to look at. When he finished he said, "Young man, this little camera has become a perfect extension of your eye, and I suggest that you take these seriously." At the time I was about as interested in photography as I was in physics - zero. But that's how it began.

RH: How did the Brownie photographs come to the public's attention?

WC: When color began to be embraced in the early 1970s, I was in several exhibitions that included some of the Brownies. One was at the Corcoran [Washington, D.C.] and the other at the Jefferson Place Gallery [Washington, D.C.]. In 1976, Virginia Zabriskie came to see my work. I joined her New York gallery, and had a one-man show. It was difficult for a lot of people to believe that these photographs were made with a Brownie camera. As Walker once said, "There is something about that cheap lens that makes the color just right." I have never seen the Brownie photographs as a separate activity. For me all these things relate. I am very pleased to have been recognized as a color photographer, yet the photographs only existed as part and parcel of the whole.

RH: What made you decide to switch to an 8 x 10 view camera?

WC: One day, out of the blue, Lee Friedlander said to me that it would be interesting to see what I could do with a camera that produced a large negative, preferably 8 x 10. I said I never used anything like that. "You can learn, can't you?," he said. Shortly after that, I began working with a Deardorff view camera lent to me by a friend.

RH: Is the stillness of your photographs a conscious or unconscious decision?

WC: It was totally unconscious, and if I were a poet, I could talk to you about that. I don't want my work thought about in terms of nostalgia. It is about place and sense of place. I only make pictures when I go home. I am not looking back longing for the past, but at the beauty of time and the passage of time.

Continued on page 3

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