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December 10, 2006
You can hear Christenberry himself talk about a few of his iconic images in this 17 minute audio recording from his presentation at San Francisco's PhotoAlliance on December 1, 2006. He's a funny story-teller in the best of Southern American traditions. There are some images to see along with the audio, as well as a review of his new book published by Aperture.
Thom Sempere, Executive Director of PhotoAlliance, made the introductory remarks for Christenberry's presentation. Here they are:
It was 30 years ago when I was trying to put together pieces to help me with my newest challenge — that of being a creative photographer. So I looked for inspiration wherever it was available. One of those sources was a magazine that had its roots here in this town, and this school, one that has been publishing in fits and starts since 1952 â€“ "Aperture Magazine". Returning the other night to issue #81, printed in 1978, I still remember the impact that a small portfolio of pictures published in it had on me.
A collection of William Christenberry images taken down in Hale County Alabama. The pictures were decidedly simple and direct. Photos that just stood there and looked you right in the eye, patiently waiting for you to say something. They were polite images, not too fancy and certainly not too arty— but they also had something that was virtually unseen in print then — they were in color. And that extra boost of real set these images apart, and elevated them from their silence to things that you wanted to read.
There is much that can be said and has been written of his work—he started as a painter and has never abandoned that medium—photography got picked up along the way as a more than handy method for holding fast the stuff that was slipping away, and of interest as subject matter for the easel.
And when what he had gotten on film couldn't quite do the job, Mr. Christenberry constructed things and created spaces—making installations before it was an art form and artful pictures before the culture had a name for them.
Measuring time, and marking meaning through its memory — these are qualities that surround his work and are qualities which resonate outside the picture frames as well. The linkages we have with each other, with our sense of home and history, with those we have never met, but whose intangible influences keep us connected though the buildings we inhabit and pass by each dayâ€¦.
There is a good story in issue #81, written by Benjamin Forgey who is now a Staff Writer for the Washington Post. He told of how Mr. Christenberry came across a copy of James Agee's Now Let Us Praise Famous Men with the suite of images by Walker Evans — images of Hale County Alabama in the late 30's. And how a young artist was startled to find not only an affinity for the spare and evocative descriptions of a place, but that the photographs were both figuratively and literally of people he knew when he was growing up in that same county.
And if I may borrow some of Agee's words, from 30 years then, now its 60 years later — he wrote
"If I could do it, I'd do no writing at all here. It would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odors, plates of food and excrement. Booksellers would consider it quite a novelty; critics would murmur, yes, but is it art."
Thankfully Agee had Evans, and thankfully tonight, we have William Christenberry.
By the way, Christenberry generously donated an edition of 25 prints to PhotoAlliance, which are available in exchange for a $750 doantion via their web site: www.photoalliance.org:
William Christenberry, Green Warehouse, Newbern, Alabama,1997
11 x 14" on 16 x 20" sheet
Archival Digital Print on Hahnemuhle Paper
Edition of 25