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William Christenberry obituary

Photographer and artist who chronicled the changing face of rural Alabama

William Christenberry, who has died aged 80, was a pioneer of American colour photography. His richly hued images of the vernacular architecture of the deep south wooden churches, shacks and dilapidated houses were all made in Hale County, Alabama, south of close to the city of Tuscaloosa, where Christenberry was born and raised. Their cumulative power comes from the strong sense of place they evoke, as well as their evocation of a rural world that, even as he was chronicling it back in the 1950s and 60s, was already fading into history.

His biggest influence was the great social documentary photographer Walker Evans, who had photographed the people and places of Hale County in 1936, the year Christenberry was born. On his regular visits to Hale County throughout his working life, Christenberry sought out many of the same buildings that Evans had photographed, and the colour images he made of them were, in turn, a pivotal influence on the work of his friend and fellow southerner William Eggleston.

A quiet and reserved individual, Christenberry took his first photographs on a humble box Brownie that had been given to him and his sister as a joint Christmas present in 1944. The resulting rolls of film were processed in the local drugstore and initially were used as reference material for his paintings. It would take several decades for him to be recognised, alongside the even more reticent Saul Leiter, as a quiet, but influential, master of the medium.

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Red Building in Forest, Hale County, Alabama, 1983. Photograph: William Christenberry/ William Christenberry; courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York and Hemphill Fine Arts, Washington, DC

His father William Sr, worked in Tuscaloosa delivering bread and selling dairy products. His mother, Ruby, was a tax assessor and textile maker. Christenberry attended the University of Alabama, where he studied for a BA then MA in painting and sculpture, falling under the spell of Robert Rauschenbergs work. Throughout his working life as an artist, Christenberry also created assemblages and collages using found materials, and collected weatherbeaten signage from old storefronts and chapels, sometimes from the same ones that he and Evans had photographed. For Christenberry, photography was not a separate activity but, as he put it, part and parcel of the whole.

In 1960, on the advice of a tutor, the painter Melville Price, Christenberry moved to New York, where he had a succession of jobs, including clothing salesman, security guard, custodian of a church and filing clerk at the picture department of Time-Life Books. It was there he introduced himself to Walker Evans, who was then working as a photo editor at Fortune magazine. The two became friends and Evans got him a job in the photo archives there. When Christenberry showed Evans a selection of photographs that he had made on his Brownie, the older photographer said: Young man, this little camera has become a perfect extension of your eye, and I suggest that you take these seriously. As Christenberry later recalled, At the time I was about as interested in photography as I was in physics zero. But thats how it began.

Christenberry had started photographing in and around Hale County in 1958. One of the poorest areas in the American south, it exerted a strong hold on his creative imagination throughout his life. This is and always will be where my heart is, he told an interviewer in 2005. It is what I care about. Everything I want to say through my work comes out of my feelings about that place its positive aspects and its negative aspects.

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Green Warehouse, 1978. Photograph: William Christenberry/ William Christenberry; courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York and Hemphill Fine Arts, Washington, DC

In 1973, when the University of Alabama hosted an exhibition of Evanss photographs of Hale County from the 1930s, Evans insisted that Christenberry travel there with him for the opening. Around this time, Christenberry had begun to gain recognition for his own photography and, in 1976, he had a show at the Corcoran in Washington DC. By then, the likes of Eggleston and Stephen Shore had revolutionised colour photography, which had been viewed with deep suspicion by the photography establishment, signalling a shift away from black and white. In fact, Eggleston, the most dramatic US colourist, made the move after Christenberry had showed him his images of Hale County.

Like his photographs, the other artworks Christenberry made collages, paintings and small, formally exact models of vernacular structures that he called dream buildings tended towards the quietly haunting. The exception was the controversial Klan room installation, made over several decades, which comprised GI Joe dolls dressed in white Ku Klux Klan robes and hoods, often posed aggressively in ominous settings. The curator Walter Hopps described it as an exorcism of racism.

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William Christenberry holds his first Brownie camera in 2015. Photograph: The Washington Post/Getty Images

Christenberry first became fascinated with the Klan in 1960, when, out of curiosity, he attempted to enter a KKK rally in Tuscaloosa courthouse only to come face to face with a lone hooded figure guarding the entrance. He recalled later: I have never seen anything more frightening than those eyes glaring through those eyehole slits. I stopped dead in my tracks and didnt go any further.

In 1963, Christenberry began work on the Klan room in Memphis, where he was teaching at the university and where he and Eggleston became close friends. He was helped by Eggelstons wife, Rosa, who sewed the miniature Klan robes. By 1968, he had created a tableau of 200 dolls alongside crosses, guns and coffins, and in the same year he relocated to Washington DC to teach at the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design, where he stayed for four decades. In 1979, the entire installation save for one doll was stolen from his studio by an unknown thief. He remade the piece and it was eventually shown as part of a survey of his work at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in 2006, entitled Passing Time: The Art of William Christenberry. However, the Klan room has remained relatively un-exhibited due to its controversial subject matter.

Christenberry was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship in 1984 and his work is owned by many public institutions, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney in New York, the Menil Collection in Houston and the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. Currently, Pace/MacGill Gallery in New York is showing William Christenberry: Summer | Winter.

Christenberry returned every year to Hale County to chronicle the changes there on an 8×10 camera, latterly reverting to using his original box Brownie. I dont want my work thought about in terms of nostalgia, he said. It is about place and sense of place. I only make pictures when I go home. I am not looking back longing for the past, but at the beauty of time and the passage of time.

He is survived by his wife, Sandra (nee Deane), whom he married in 1967, their three children, Emlyn, William and Kate, and five grandchildren.

William Andrew Christenberry, photographer and artist, born 5 November 1936; died 28 November 2016

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/dec/04/william-christenberry-obituary

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