William Christenberry is a multi-talented artist who has undertaken a decades-long project of photographing his home, Hale County, Alabama. Embarking every year on a personal journey throughout Alabama, Christenberry patiently drew a certain history of America, focusing on the gradual degradation of the constructions and the devastating emptiness of the region.

Year after year, wooden farms dissolve in the fields, a once mythic grocery store runs out of business, an underground club changes colors at the whim of each new owner, and bricks turn round before falling apart. As the pace of rural exodus quickens, so does the vanishing of the place's memory. His work is often based around sets of images which contain 10-20 photographs of the same place. These series document the slow transformations that occurred in each spot under the pressure of time. The repetition of similar landscapes, and in many cases of similar buildings, spanning periods of over 30 years, infuses the frames with loneliness and decay. But Christenberry provides humorous anecdotes that help counter pure nostalgia:

My home country just always seemed to be part of my being. […] It's not nostalgia. I am not interested in that. […] That won't get you anywhere. But strong sentiment, though, I think it's different.

Among Christenberry's landmarks is the Red Building, which he dearly thinks of as his “Magritte building”, with its artificial brick siding tacked all over the wooden walls and the door: 

Just that play is both beautiful and funny at the same time. But more importantly to me, this building has a sense of being isolated. There is nothing there to put in context. There is no other dwelling, nothing. I first photographed it with the Brownie camera in 1974 and then almost annually since. For a long, long time I wondered why it was there. What purpose did it serve ? … Now, that is exceptional because there are people there, probably everywhere, who think that certain aspects of my work, if not all of it, are critical of where I am from.

Here lies an important aspect of Christenberry's work. His inventory of the South is emotional before being political. When he aims to denounce the politically unbearable, he does so clearly. For example, he worked for 30 years on a series devoted to expressing his abhorrence of the Ku Klux Klan. But by and large, his work on Hale Country was not political or critical, it was personal. In the photographer's words, "I wanted to come to grips with my feelings about the landscape and what was in it" and he did so through his art.

Laurence Cornet

Editor's Note: Listen to an audio recording of a lecture by William Christenberry published in LensCulture in 2006.