29 December 2016

Remembering William Christenberry

A star for the new millennium and a landscape cut out by a star, this photograph was taken on New Year's Day in the year 2000. 
While the world was preoccupied with the deaths of other, more famous artists, William Christenberry slipped quietly away on November 28, 2016.   Christenberry was, by turns, a painter, a sculptor of miniature 'dream buildings, and a photographer,  and it is for his photography that he will be remembered.  What attracted him to photography, he said,  was a spiritual dimension that enabled him "to come to grips with my feelings about the landscape and what was in it."  Through his lens,  worn clapboards and dilapidated buildings  appeared more perfectly themselves in rich color than they had in  black and white.  Christenberry, raised under the southern sun, had no prejudice against the use of color film. That landscape also included the Ku Klux Klan and a hooded man at the Tuscaloosa County Court House in 1960, an encounter that shook Christenberry deeply.
William Christenberry was born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama in 1936, the year that Walker Evans and James Agee spent a month with tenant farmers in nearby Hale County.  The two men hoped to publish an article but it failed to materialize;  instead, their book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, published five years later, became a masterpiece of social documentary.  
Alabama was home to some of the poorest areas in the south  and it signifies that Christenberry acquired his first camera as a joint Christmas present with his sister in 1944.  After attending college, Christenberry thought he would become a painter but in New York he met Walker Evans who encouraged him to take his photography seriously.   Christenberry taught painting at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C.,  where he lived until his death from Alzheimer's disease last month. 

See photographs by William Christenberry in the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.
William Christenberry - Christmas Star Near Akron Alabama, January 1, 2000, Museum of Modern Art, NYC.

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