William Christenberry

Dates1936 - 2016
RolesArtist, Photographer

For most of his career, William Christenberry made an annual pilgrimage from his home in Washington, D.C. to the red-clay soil of his youth in central Alabama, where he documented and was inspired by its rural landscape. Living away from the South enabled him to respond viscerally--through paintings, drawings, sculpture, and photography--to sites of deep meaning for him. Although Christenberry long worked in a variety of media, he became known in the early 1970s as a pioneer of fine art color photography through small, straightforward snapshots of his subjects. In more recent decades, Christenberry's art consisted of large-format photographs of the same vernacular structures, as well as sculptures that resembled architectural models but were influenced by memory and association more than exacting observation. A large body of his work focused on the Klu Klux Klan, a part of southern culture he abhorred but felt could not be ignored.

Christenberry grew up in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, but each summer stayed on the farms of his grandparents in rural Hale County. In the late 1950s, he earned undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa. The initial color photographs he made--with a Brownie camera he received as a child--were made as visual reference for the subjects he wanted to paint. In 1960, he had a life-changing experience: he encountered the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and realized that his grandparents had known the poor sharecropper families whose lives were documented in it. Initially inspired by James Agee's writing and Walker Evans's portraits, Christenberry sought out Evans in New York City in 1961. Evans, who then worked as senior editor at Fortune Magazine, helped him get a job at Time-Life. They became close friends until Evans's death in 1975. "He was the first one to encourage me to take the photographs, the little Brownie snapshots, seriously," Christenberry said of Evans. From 1962 to 1968, Christenberry taught photography at Memphis State University, after which he obtained a teaching position at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington DC. He began using a large format camera in the late 1970s, which enabled him, year after year, decade after decade, to record the effects of time's passage on his beloved South.