Obituary: William Christenberry, Pioneer of Color Photography, Age 80

November 29, 2016

By Conor Risch

William Christenberry, who depicted rural Alabama through photographs, paintings and sculpture, died on Monday, November 28, in Washington, DC. He was 80. The news was confirmed by Christenberry’s New York Gallery, Pace/MacGill. Christenberry had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2011.

Known for photographs that measured the passage of time and evoked a sense of place in a region with a rich history darkened by racial and social injustice, Christenberry was one of the pioneers of color fine-art photography in the 1970s, working first with a Kodak Brownie snapshot camera before he incorporated 8×10 and 35mm cameras into his practice. Christenberry produced his work largely through annual trips to Hale County, Alabama which he thought of as home. His photographs show time’s effect on the landscape and humble rural architecture.

“I don’t want my work thought about in terms of nostalgia,” Christenberry said in an interview in 2005. “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.”

Christenberry’s work also acknowledged the terrible racial history of the deep South through his piece “The Klan Room,” a tableaux of images of Ku Klux Klan events he surreptitiously photographed in the 1960s, paintings of Klansmen and sculptures.

William Christenberry was born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama in 1936. Both sets of grandparents were farmers in nearby Hale County, where, that same year, the writer James Agee and Walker Evans began to produce Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, their Depression-era book about the lives of sharecroppers.

Christenberry earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Alabama, where he studied art. In a 2009 interview with the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Christenberry said that it was important to his career as an artist that his parents “never discouraged me. Even coming from a rather conservative part of the country, they never said, ‘Son, you’ve got to do something where you can get a real job and make money.’ They never did that.” His primary interests were painting and drawing, and he began making photographs in the late 1950s as references for his other work. He turned to color photography not as an artistic choice, but as a way to recall the color of the buildings for his paintings.

In 1960, while teaching art at University of Alabama, he discovered Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a book that would have a profound influence on his life and work. When he showed his copy to his grandmother, she knew many of the sharecroppers in the book by name (Agee and Evans had changed their names to protect their privacy). In 1961, at the encouragement of a former professor, Christenberry moved to New York. He sought out Walker Evans, who was then a photo editor at Fortune magazine, which was owned by Time-Life. Though he wanted primarily to show Evans his paintings of Hale County, Christenberry also brought along drugstore prints of images he had shot with his Brownie. Evans encouraged the young artist to take his photography seriously, got him a job at Time-Life, and the pair eventually became close friends.

In 1962, Christenberry accepted a teaching job at Memphis State (now University of Memphis). There, he met his future wife, and befriended another aspiring photographer, William Eggleston. It was Christenberry who first encouraged Eggleston to shoot in color. “I don’t have a closer friend in life,” Eggleston has said.

In 1968, Christenberry took a job at The Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C., where he taught for more than four decades. As color photography gained recognition, Christenberry’s Brownie photographs were included in group exhibitions. After seeing his work in a show at The Corcoran Gallery of Art, Virginia Zabriskie gave Christenberry his first solo exhibition in New York at her gallery in 1976.

Photographer Lee Friedlander encouraged Christenberry to try working with an 8×10 camera. He made his first large-format photographs in 1977, and he eventually also worked with a 35mm camera.

Christenberry’s work is in the permanent collections of The National Gallery of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Center for Creative Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, among many others. He received numerous awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1984, and the Alabama Prize in 1989. In 2013, Fundación MAPFRE, Madrid, organized a major retrospective of his work. An exhibition of Christenberry’s photographs is on display at Pace/MacGill through January 2, 2017.

He is survived by his wife of five decades and three children.

Related: Lee Friedlander: Photographers at Home

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