Belonging to the South

by Patricia Carter

In a 1988 appearance at Galveston’s Grand Opera House, dramatist and screenwriter Horton Foote spoke of how an artist finds his own voice: “An artist needs to know what has been done before his time; he needs to belong to a place.” In November 1991, again at the historic Grand Opera House, an audience was introduced to William Christenberry, who seems the very embodiment of that dictum. A few blocks away, the Galveston Arts Center displayed the works – drawings, photographs, and sculptures – of this unique Southern artist.

The place that William Christenberry belongs to is Hale County, Alabama. It is his by birth, blood, and experience, and he seems to have possessed from earliest childhood that most lasting of birthrights: a feeling of connection to land.

In 1958 Christenberry began making photographs in Hale County, using a little Brownie camera that he had been given for Christmas. He still maintains, as he told his Galveston audience, that those first photographs were made simply as references for his paintings, but it seems clear that something deeper was at work even then. He admits that he felt a need to come to grips with the landscape around him. “Photographs seemed the most straightforward response to what I saw,” he said.

Christenberry spoke of his family, all devout Christians, and its division on the question of baptism between “dunkers” and “sprinklers.” He did not speak of his own baptism, but it seems certain that his confirmation, at least as an artist, occurred at the moment in 1960 when he held in his hands a second edition of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the classic documentary on Hale County sharecroppers, with photographs by Walker Evans and text by James Agee.

Surprisingly, in the beginning it was not Evans’ photographs but Agee’s words that struck Christenberry with full force. Gradually, however, he found in Evans’ work a permanent gift from which he could draw strength and inspiration. He began to trace the two men’s footsteps, often photographing in the places that Evans and Agee had been, but moving increasingly beyond their work to find ways to relate his own experiences.

Christenberry now lives in Washington D.C. and teaches at The Corcoran School of Art. But, he returns year after year to Alabama and Hale County, and in so doing has built a body of work that gives us much more than a glimpse at a vanishing rural South. James Agee, striving to convey the essence of his experience in Hale County in 1936, used every means at his disposal: poetry, stream of consciousness, lists, prayer, rhetoric. Christenberry too, uses all means – paintings, drawings, photographs, and sculptures – but it is the photographs that bind the work together. For after all, Hale County is not a land of the artist’s imagination. It is a real place. Rain falls; kudzu grows, thrives, dies back, and returns. Photographs deal with those realities of place better than any other medium, especially Christenberry’s photographs. They are as lucid and as plain, as straightforward, and as heart-breakingly simple as it is possible to be. Moreover, he never puts himself between us and what he is trying to show us. But what is it that he wants us to see? What is it that we can recognize and call our own?

Of the twenty-two photographs displayed at the Galveston Arts Center, most are of structures and small buildings that Christenberry has photographed again and again through the years – as the paint peels, as signs are replaced by graffiti, as the structures sag and begin their slow descent back to the soil. These photographs are not populated with the citizens of Hale County, but somehow the buildings and landscapes do not seem bereft of people. A human presence is perhaps most strongly felt in a small 3x5 inch image taken in 1971 and titled Door of House at Christmas, Greensboro, Alabama. The soft color-saturated blue of the impoverished door seems the very color of longing, and we understand how much depends on four tiny Christmas lights shining in the December dark.

There is something about these rural buildings that is beautiful. The simplicity of form and lack of pretense is appealing. But more than that, Christenberry’s perspective often gives us a real sense of the way these structures occupy their space. They seem to hold their place in the landscape with integrity, a way of belonging, that speaks to the viewer. In one image, the small building seems as native to the Alabama earth and sky as the big chinaberry tree growing alongside. His sculptures, two of which were seen in Galveston, have a similar kind of presence.

In 1977, Christenberry began working with an 8x10 Deardoff camera. His beautifully luminous 20x24 prints show how surely he has made the large format serve his vision. It is not small trick that these photographs have the same poetic quality as the images made with the little Brownie Holiday and Hawkeye cameras.

Christenberry is fascinated by the passage of time, and a large part of his intent in returning time after time to the same subject is to show us that process. Yet, somehow, I would not think to describe these buildings as “aging.” Surely it is only the photographer (and the viewer) who is growing older, for these structures seem only to pass without grudging from one state of grace to the next.

The careers and works of most artists can be traced in linear fashion. Christenberry’s seem circular and satisfyingly whole, even as they continue to evolve and expand. His mother was a quilt maker, and perhaps the quilt is a better analogy. Each square is a cosmos; the whole is a sovereign nation.

Christenberry continues to work with sureness of purpose. He wants, he says, to “possess” that place. But he wants also, as Agee wanted, to give it to us if we can take it. As he spreads his work before us, piece by piece and year by year, we may see a country we can all claim. It is the Land of Belonging.

Patricia Carter is a writer living in Beaumont, Texas.