Collection Spotlight: William Christenberry (1936 – 2016)

In this collection spotlight, JCSM remembers artist William Christenberry (1936 – 2016).

William Christenberry was born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama in 1936—coincidentally, the same year that photographer Walker Evans and writer James Agee traveled to nearby Hale County to conduct research for an article on tenant families, which developed into their book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Twenty-four years later, as a young artist, Christenberry discovered the publication and recognized the places and some of the people it described; he also found a strong emotional tie to the landscapes, architecture, and signage that Evans had photographed. Christenberry returned to Hale County and the surrounding area to search for those same sites, thus beginning a yearly ritual of photographing the familiar landmarks he had grown up with and documenting their transformation through the passage of time.

William Christenberry, (American, 1936–2016), Red Building in Forest, Hale County, Alabama, 1974 Edition:25, Printed 2006, Archival pigment print, 6 3/4 x 10 1/4 inches, Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art, Auburn University; museum purchase with funds provided by the 1072 Society, 2016 2016.01.03

Red Building in Forest, Hale County is one such iconic subject that Christenberry has revisited frequently, not only in photographs but in painted and sculpted forms. He began photographing this modest one-room structure in 1974. Isolated in the Talladega National Forest and long abandoned, it resembles a child’s drawing of a house or the mere symbol for a dwelling. With no windows on the entry façade, and walls and door covered in fake-brick asphalt sheathing, it seems more artifice than edifice. The noonday sunlight that envelopes the little building in a warm glow counters its sad state of disrepair and threat of consumption by the surrounding vegetation. Like the extant ruins from much more ancient times, its melancholy presence reminds us not only of our connections to the past but that our existence here is transitory. Christenberry is considered among the three greatest photographers of the South, alongside his mentor and friend Walker Evans and William Eggleston. His art is in the collections of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Museum of Modern Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum, and Whitney Museum of American Art, among many others.

Jerry Siegel
(American, b. 1958)
William Christenberry, Alabama, 2005
Archival pigment print
14 x 14 inches
Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art, Auburn University; museum purchase

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