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Going Home: WILLIAM CHRISTENBERRY

Highlights from Issue 31: Ode to the South

William Christenberry in his home studio in Washington, DC
April 24th, 2007

Photograph by DAN WINTERS

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Friday, June 22, 2007

The following Q&A is excerpted from Issue 31: Ode to the South. This issue is available for purchase on this site

GOING HOME
(EXCERPT)

The Stop Smiling Interview with William Christenberry

Interview and Portrait by Dan Winters
 

I first became aware of William Christenberry’s work in the early Eighties. To me, his images represent simple truths that create a lush and mythic world. Over the years I was repeatedly drawn to the photographs of his native Alabama and wanted to walk on the land where the images were made. Photographically speaking, this was hallowed ground — it was, after all, the landscape of Walker Evans. Evans had spent time in Hale County, Alabama in 1936 with James Agee while they worked on Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. I knew Evans and Christenberry had spent time there together as well, before Evans’s death in 1975. I made a pilgrimage to Hale County in February 2005 so I could, in some small way, participate in the tradition. I traveled through the bleak winter landscape that bore little resemblance to the lush, kudzu-smothered world I had seen in Christenberry’s photographs. As I moved through the region, I found these places — places called Havana Junction, Sprott, China Grove and Stewart. I gathered artifacts: a jar of dirt, a brick from the foundation of a building that had long since returned to the earth. I talked to the people and I photographed. I began feeling the pull of the red earth. It was on my boots and had kissed my cameras.

Bill was gracious enough to spend the day with me in April 2007 at his studio in Washington, DC.

Stop Smiling: You’ve referred to Hale County, Alabama as the landscape of your youth.

William Christenberry: Let me clarify that a little bit. I was actually born in the city just north of Hale County called Tuscaloosa. I was born in 1936. My grandparents on both sides of the family — the Christenberrys and the Smith family — were farming families in Hale County. This would’ve been, mileage-wise, about 18 miles from Tuscaloosa. I would go down there during the summer and spend a week at the Christenberry farm, and then a week at the Smith farm. The farms were only about six miles apart, as the crow flies. I had many wonderful experiences there. I’m not putting thoughts in your head, but what you’re probably thinking is that it is true that the majority of the photographs are made in and around Hale County, or the other counties around there, but primarily Hale County.

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