William Christenberry, William Eggleston, and Walker Evans have defined southern photography just as profoundly as Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren, and C. Vann Woodward shaped southern literature and history. Both groups are bound by their deep love for the American South and by their admiration for one another's work--an admiration that I share. Walker Evans first introduced me to Bill Christenberry's work in 1973, shortly after he and Bill had traveled together to Hale County, Alabama. I met Bill not long after that trip, and we have been close friends ever since.
Our understanding of sense of place and how it shapes southerners is significantly deepened by Bill Christenberry's vision for his work. His desire to "possess" dog-trot houses, country stores, and churches in Hale County first led him to photograph, then build miniature sculptures of these buildings. Once completed, he placed each building on a base of red clay soil that he brought from Alabama. While these buildings evoke pastoral memories of the rural South, Christenberry is not afraid to challenge romantic notions about his home region, as he strives to "Ideal] with what I see as both the beautiful aspects of where I'm from and also ... the ugly or dark aspects." Calling his Ku Klux Klan series "the most difficult to express," he summons the terror of Klan violence in tableaus that reveal "a strange and secret brutality."
Bill Christenberry is nurtured by his Hale County roots and has drawn on them throughout his teaching career at the Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington, D.C., where he has worked since 1968. Just as William Faulkner created the mythic Yoknapatawpha County to frame his literary legacy, Christenberry draws on his own "little postage stamp of native soil" in Hale County as inspiration for his photography, painting, and sculpture.
This interview was recorded and filmed during the summer of 1983 at Bill Christenberry's studio in Washington, D.C., as part of my film Painting in the South. The film accompanied an exhibit, "Painting in the South: 1564-1980," organized by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, Virginia.
William Christenberry, in his own words ...
My interest in photography comes out of a background in painting. As a student at the University of Alabama in the mid to late 1950s, I began to look around West Central Alabama (the part of Alabama that I'm from) and see things that I wanted to try to paint, but I didn't know how to go about it. Santa Claus had brought me and my sister a small Brownie camera in the late 1940s, and I just loaded it with color film and went out to that Alabama landscape and began to photograph what caught my eye, especially rural architecture and graveyards in the country. Back in the studio, those little color snapshots were references for paintings that were quite expressionistic--a lot of gesture and rich surface quality, but with subject matter.
I first met Bill Eggleston in 1962, when I moved to Memphis. I think his interest in photography increased my interest in photography, because I continued to make those little snapshots for a number of years. As I said, they were references for paintings. I never thought of them as art or as serious photographs until later, when I met Walker Evans in New York and he asked to see some of the little snapshots. But that didn't change the way I looked at things or what I looked at. Then, when I moved to Washington, D.C. in 1968, Waiter Hopps [Director of the Corcoran Gallery, 1967-72] encouraged me to begin exhibiting the little snapshots.
Photography for me is a wonderful means of expression, but it is not the only thing that I try to do as an artist. It's just part of it, along with drawing and sculpture, and although this does not include painting since at least 1968, I don't doubt that someday I might like to try painting again. …