JTF (just the facts): A total of 20 color photographs, framed in white and matted/unmatted, and hung against orange and cream colored walls in the two room gallery space. 10 of the works are Brownie pigment prints, made between 1967 and 2001. These prints are sized roughly 3×5 and are available in editions of 25+5AP. The other 10 works are pigment prints (some mounted to Plexiglas), made between 1980 and 2002. The prints range in size from roughly 8×13 to 40×50, with editions either 25+5AP for the smaller prints or 9+4AP for the largest. (Installation shots below, courtesy Pace/MacGill website.)
Comments/Context: For the vast majority of photographs we see, the subject of those photographs is patently obvious – it’s the person or thing in the center of the frame. And if we apply this same simplistic logic to the work of William Christenberry, it would be easy to conclude that his pictures are “about” the rural South, particularly the architecture found in Hale county, Alabama. For more than five decades, Christenberry (who recently died at the age of 80) made exterior images of humble roadside bars, juke joints, warehouses, barns, churches, and other modest buildings, coming back again and again year after year to repeat the process. So it seems appropriate to conclude that he was just documenting life around him, which of course, he was.
But the plot twist in Christenberry’s work is that it’s what’s in between his images that really matters – his actual subject is the slow passage of time, and his decaying structures and overgrown kudzu are the visual evidence of that invisible process. This smart show understands this, and has thoughtfully paired summer and winter pictures of the same places into diptychs that cycle with the seasons. When his images are shown side by side, we can more clearly grasp what Christenberry was trying to show us – he’s captured the elusiveness of change, evolution, grinding weariness, and natural rebirth, using his local surroundings as his raw material. At their core, his photographs are rooted in slow, patient observation, of looking and looking and looking again. This is also why showing just a single isolated Christenberry print (in a group show for example) often feels random – there is no comparative time-elapsed context available and so it fundamentally misses Christenberry’s enduring significance.
While Christenberry’s small snapshot-like images are often hung in large arrays like taxonomies for easier comparison, it is a mistake to lump his approach in with more conceptual photographers like Bernd and Hilla Becher whose austere documentary rigor had a different aim. While Christenberry did replicate his camera position with remarkable fidelity over the passing decades, that aesthetic strictness wasn’t the point in and of itself. Even his most precise series are infused with the easy going tenderness of a local resident who has been past these buildings every day for his whole life. That he consistently used a straight on deadpan style just removes the other visual elements that might have distracted us from seeing the minute changes he found so compelling.
The seasonal images on view here highlight the jostling of permanence and impermanence that only shows itself in the incremental passage of time. The new owners of the Underground Nite Club have installed white trim on the windows and gutters and changed the signage over the years, that is until the location was rebuilt a few years later as Barry’s Place. Coleman’s Café has a new Coca-Cola sign. And the shingles on the roof on a house near Akron, Alabama, have deteriorated further, and a tire has been scavenged from the car up on blocks in the front yard.
Many of the pairings here turn on natural cycles, where the bountiful tones of lush green trees give way to the dusty browns and reds of winter in the South. Towering leaves envelop the abandoned palmist building, only to succumb to the bareness of spindly branches. A pear tree overflows with fruit in summer, turning to a craggy sculptural form twisted by the wind when the skies turn grey. And a winding road is flanked by a verdant carpet of kudzu, that brimming life turned to brown as the plants die back in the cold. Christenberry is there to watch and observe, seeing the differences as part of a larger continuum of continual change.
There are no new images on display in this show, and viewers familiar with Christenberry’s work will see echoes of buildings they have seen before. But as an epitaph for a durably important American photographer, this tightly edited exhibit is entirely fitting. It boils down a career into its elegant essence, encouraging us to slow down and see what Christenberry saw happening around him. His pictures are full of quiet subtleties and measured conclusions, their rhythms unassuming but persistent. Christenberry actively (and valiantly) wrestled with the beast of time for decades, and he has left behind a body of work that explores its many nuances with humility and grace.
Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced between $3000 and $15500 each, based 0n size. When sold as a diptych (two prints summer/winter), some discounting takes place. Christenberry’s photographs have been intermittently available in the secondary markets in recent years, with prices ranging from roughly $1000 to $20000.