Skip to main content

Full text of "William Christenberry: Color Photographs"

See other formats

This exhibition is one of a series of individual photography 
exhibitions supported by the National Endowment for the 
Arts, Washington, D.C., a Federal agency, and the Polaroid 
Corporation. The series is co-organized by Associate Direc¬ 
tor and Chief Curator Jane Livingston and Assistant Curator 
Frances Fralin. 

Copyright © The Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. 
Library of Congress Catalogue Card Number 78-65911 

Fifteen hundred copies of this catalogue were printed and 
bound by the Garamond/Pridemark Press, Baltimore, Mary¬ 

The plates are by The Acme Printing Company, Medford, 

Designed at The Hollow Press, Washington, D.C. 

frontispiece: Side of Warehouse— Newber n, Alabama 

DECEMBER 21,1978 - FEBRUARY 11,1979 




William Christenberry is an artist who happens to use the camera as a 
necessary part of his wide ranging artistic activity. He was trained at the 
University of Alabama in the classical manner given to fine arts students 
of the 1950s: the then current values of New York painting, especially 
embodied in the form of his abstract-expressionist-imbued teacher Mel¬ 
ville Price, were imparted to Christenberry in a manner that in turn 
made him paint in the broad, “non-objective” style. But even as early as 
1959, Christenberry wanted to get beyond making the gesture of painting 
for its own sake—the active unadorned gesture was nearly sacrosanct 
in the art instruction of the time everywhere in the United States—and 
instead to find his own “subject matter.” Thus, in that year, he began 
using a Brownie camera to create images which, in his word, were in¬ 
tended as a “reference” for his painting and drawing activity. The photos 
would then be drymounted on mat board and used in much the way 
nineteenth century artists used photographs, either their own or others’, 
as convenient fragmentary guidelines. Christenberry’s photographs were 
color images from the beginning; it made sense, he says, to work in 
color since he was painting in color. The artist’s chromatic sense, both 
in his painting and in the sculpture, has always been exceedingly sophis¬ 
ticated; Christenberry is a natural colorist. 

None of the Brownie snapshots from the first three years survives; the 
earliest existing photos date from 1962. In this year the artist received 
initial encouragement to treat the photographs as objects valuable in 
their own right. This awareness came from his friend and mentor Walker 
Evans, whom Christenberry met in 1961 and with whom he was to main¬ 
tain a close relationship until Evans’ death in 1975. The early subject 
matter for Christenberry’s photographs was confined to the graveyards 
near his parents’ home in Greensboro, Alabama, and the many country 
shacks in the same vicinity. A pattern was in fact established that con¬ 
tinues to the present time: Christenberry returns every summer to Hale 
County from Washington, D.C. with his wife, Sandra, and their two 
young children. There he spends three weeks photographing and adding 
to his collection of old weathered metal signs and other artifacts. The 

3. Grave with Heart-Shaped Wreath—Hale County, Alabama 

subject matter for the photographs has broadened, year by year, as the 
artist gradually includes other kinds of objects—abandoned automobiles 
or barns or roadside cafes or simply broad country landscapes—into his 
repertory, but he has continued to develop the original subjects, grave- 
sites and old buildings, sometimes photographing the same site for as 
many as seven consecutive years. 

The artist emphasizes that his activity does not divide into painting, 
drawing, sculpture building, sign collecting, assemblage, photography— 
it is all one endeavor for him, and this fact is evident in the photographs 
themselves. They cannot quite be seen within the “classical” tradition of 
photography as conducted through Stieglitz, Weston, Ansel Adams, 
Walker Evans and the rest. They are so artlessly composed, particularly 
in the Brownie shots, that one is taken aback upon first seeing them. Yet 
somehow the early works are the photographs of a sculptor. And they 
are always about color. 

The images presently under consideration are later and somewhat dif¬ 
ferent. In them we are seeing not only a dramatic increase in print size 
(20 x 24 inches as opposed to the 3*/2 x 5 inches of the snapshots) but 
greater complexity of subject and compositional expansiveness. The 
earlier Brownie photographs tend to frame a single object, building or 
tombstone, in the center of the format; the compositions are relatively 
closed, near to their subject and often intimate. Size and scale work 
together to create the world in miniature. The move to a large format 
camera, an 8x10 Deardorff, didn’t occur until the summer of 1977, but 
it was several years in coming. Perhaps the most important concrete 
influence leading Christenberry to expand his camera’s purview and the 
size of the prints themselves was the urging of Lee Friedlander, Caldecot 
Chubb, and Christenberry’s close friend, William Eggleston. Eggleston 
and Christenberry continually look at each other’s work and inevitably 
this results in a mutual pressure of influence. Certain obvious similarities 
exist—both photographers are focusing primarily on their native Southern 
environments (though Eggleston also works extensively in other regions 
and in many styles); both work in color; both are moving increasingly 

7. 50— Demopolis, Alabama 


" v;: '^ISM 



into large-format Ektacolor prints. (Eggleston has in the past been most 
commonly identified with the dye transfer process.) But the differences 
are profound. Christenberry is always more straightforward and more 
static, considered, quiescent in his choice of subject and in his composi¬ 
tional framings than is Eggleston. Despite the recently expanded fram- « 

ings and format, and the increased complexity of the compositions, 

Christenberry continues to make images whose chief characteristic is 
clarity, both of design and of palette. 

The images in the present exhibition fall into several types. First is the 
familiar grave scene, whose palette, most strikingly in Grave with Heart- 
Shaped Wreath— Hale County , Alabama, works from the warm, rich clay 
color of the Alabama earth. Points of blue and lavender and green seem 
pictorially superimposed as a draughtsman adds nuance, making a chro¬ 
matic field whose character is profoundly painterly. Another type is 
exemplified in Green Warehouse — Newbern, Alabama , a photograph re¬ 
stricted to the range of greens with only earthtones as anchoring points: 
not even the sky adds color here. (The use of white rather than sharply 
blue sky is intentional: most of the works in this large-scale series were 
shot on somewhat overcast days. The intensity of sky blue seems to be 
an uncontrollable or chromatically overpowering element in the palette 
of the large-format works.) A third type in this group is a variation of 
a frequent approach in Christenberry’s photographs from the earliest 
ones on—that of focusing on a wall surface, excluding horizon line or 
peripheral imagery, to concentrate on a matrix of texture, color, shape 
and line. These photographs are almost like drawings. A new element, 
however, comes into play in Side of Warehouse — Newbern, Alabama: 
the rusted metal units of the side of the building are similar in texture 
and design to the artist’s own recent sculptures, made with sections of 
metal hammered onto wood surfaces. In fact this image was the first one 
to be printed in the 20 x 24 inch format, and inspired the artist to try 
others in this size. 

The photograph of the black farm buildings perhaps foretells a departure 
for Christenberry; rarely in previous works does the artist open up the 

10. Horses and Black Buildings — Newbern, Alabama 

range of view to this extent, allowing a sweep back into space and in¬ 
cluding “figures” (in this case three horses). It is a way of composing 
a photograph which may seem on the face of it more conventional, 
ordinary, than the previous ones; but this type of picture suggests, within 
the context of Christenberry’s entire production, a new notion of rangi¬ 
ness which may in turn lead to an entirely new look both in the photo¬ 
graphs and in the other media. 

Christenberry’s characteristic ingenuousness in the photographs, their 
patent qualities of simplicity and at moments naivete (we must remem¬ 
ber that the artist never prints his own work) are in fact the qualities 
that give these works their own strength. It is a Southern insistence on 
portraying immediate plain life vs. the urge to make metaphors. And the 
artist is quite aware of this. He says about the photographs, “I’ve been 
making those photos over the years just for myself. I really didn’t intend 
for them to be shown. And maybe for that reason, they’re the most 
natural things I’ve done. I’d like my work to have the same directness 
and naturalness that the graves and the hand-painted signs have. But 
I’m a trained artist. I’m not sure I can be that unselfconscious.” With 
these new, large-format works, of course, the artist is allowing a new 
complexity and even a certain conscious sophistication to enter into the 
works’ esthetic. But they retain the tenaciously unurbane quality of the 
earlier Brownie photographs in their thorough clarity, their extremely 
controlled palette, and most of all in the underlying sense of rootedness 
in their own place which is at the heart of the Southern artist’s work 
and being. Their fascination is now in their being works of art which 
make not a unified observation but a synthesis; they are at the same 
time carefully composed, abstractly conceived images, and forcefully 
presented depictions of scenes of the American rural South. 

Jane Livingston 


The exhibition consists of fifteen Ek74 prints 
executed by Dimension Color Labs, New York 
City, under the supervision of the artist and Cal- 
decot Chubb. Image dimensions are 17%x22 
inches (44.1x55.9 centimeters), height preceding 
width, with the exception of Catalogue Numbers 
1 and 2, which are the reverse. Paper size is 20x24 
inches. Photographs courtesy Caldecot Chubb, 
New York City. 

1. Provide nee Church - Perry County, Alabama, 


2. Child's Grave with Styrofoam Bear - Hale 
County, Alabama, 1977 

3. Grave with Heart-Shaped Wreath - Hale 
County, Alabama, 1977 

4. Child's Grave with Lavender Chrysanthe¬ 
mums - Hale County, Alabama, 1977 

5. Side of Warehouse - Newbern, Alabama, 1978 

6. 50 - Demopolis, Alabama, 1978 

7. New Grave - Havana, Alabama, 1978 

8. Kudzu - Near Akron, Alabama, 1978 

9. Horses and Black Buildings - Newbern, Ala¬ 
bama, 1978 

10. Green Warehouse - Newbern, Alabama, 1978 

11. Kudzu and Road - Near Akron, Alabama, 1978 

12. Wild Flowers - Near Greensboro, Alabama, 


13. Cotton Gin - Havana Junction, Alabama, 1978 

14. Grave with Crimson Wreath - Near Greens¬ 
boro, Alabama, 1978 

15. High Kudzu - Near Akron, Alabama, 1978 


Born Tuscaloosa, Alabama, 1936. 

Received B.F.A. Degree from University of Ala¬ 
bama, Tuscaloosa, 1958. 

Received M.A. Degree from University of Ala¬ 
bama, 1959. 

Taught at Memphis State University, Tennessee, 

Associate Professor of Art at Corcoran School of 
Art, Washington, D.C., 1968-74. 

Professor of Art at Corcoran School of Art, 1974 
to present. 

Received an individual fellowship in photography 
from the National Endowment for the Arts, Wash¬ 
ington, D.C., 1976. 

Received a commission from U.S. General Serv¬ 
ices Administration, Art-in-Architecture Program 
to create a wall work for the Jackson, Mississippi, 
Federal Building, 1978. 

Lives Washington, D.C. 


1961 University of Alabama Gallery of Art, Tus¬ 
caloosa. (Paintings and drawings.) 

1963 Memphis State University Gallery of Art, 
Tennessee. (Paintings and drawings.) 

1967 Mary Chilton Gallery, Memphis, Tennessee. 
(Paintings and drawings.) 

1970 Henri Gallery, Washington, D.C. (Sculpture 
and drawings.) 

1971 Henri II Gallery, Washington, D.C. (Sculp¬ 
ture and drawings.) 

1972 University of Maryland, Baltimore County. 
(Sculpture and drawings.) 

1973 Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. 
Brochure with statements by Nina Felshin 
and Walker Evans. (Photographs.) Exhibi¬ 
tion traveled to The Baltimore Museum of 
Art, Maryland. 

Jefferson Place Gallery, Washington, D.C. 

Henri I Gallery, Washington, D.C. (Sculp¬ 
ture and drawings.) 

The Octagon House, American Institute of 
Architects, Washington, D.C. Brochure. 

1974 Henri I Gallery, Washington, D.C. (Sculp¬ 
ture.) Henry II, Washington, D.C. (Paint¬ 

1976 University of Alabama Art Gallery, Tusca¬ 
loosa. (Photographs.) 

Weatherspoon Art Gallery, University of 
North Carolina at Greensboro. (Photo¬ 

Zabriskie Gallery, New York City. (Photo¬ 
graphs and sculpture.) 

1977 University Art Gallery, State University of 
New York at Albany. (Photographs.) 

Sander Gallery, Washington, D.C. Brochure. 


1969- Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, Florida. 
1970 “The Washington Painters.” Catalogue with 
introduction by James Harithas. 

1970 Baltimore Museum of Art, Maryland. 
“Washington: Twenty Years.” Catalogue 
with essays by Diana F. Johnson, Ellen 
Hope Gross, Arlene Corkery. (Sculpture.) 
Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. 
“New Sculpture: Baltimore - Washington- 
Richmond.” Catalogue with introduction by 
Renato Danese. 

1971 Museum of Fine Art, St. Petersburg, Florida, 
and the Jacksonville Art Museum, Florida. 
“Transparent and Translucent Art.” Cata¬ 
logue. (Sculpture.) 

Art Gallery, State University College at 
Potsdam, New York, and University Art 
Gallery, State University of New York at 
Albany, New York. “Washington Art.” 
Catalogue with introduction by Renato 
Danese. (Sculpture.) 

Corcoran Gallery of Art - Dupont Center, 
Washington, D.C. “Corcoran Photography 
Workshop Second Invitational.” 

Columbia Museum of Art, South Carolina. 
“Eight Washington Artists.” Catalogue with 
introduction by Gunther Stamm. (Sculp¬ 

1972 The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. 
“Second Annual Exhibition of Washington 
Artists: Paintings, Sculpture, Drawings and 
Graphics.” Catalogue. (Drawing.) 

1973 Jefferson Place Gallery, Washington, D.C. 
“Six Washington Photographers.” 

1974 Rochester Institute of Technology, Roches¬ 
ter, New York. “Straight Color.” (Photo¬ 

1975 Baltimore Museum of Art, Maryland. “14 
American Photographers.” Catalogue with 
introduction by Renato Danese. Exhibition 
traveled to Newport Harbor Art Museum, 
Newport Beach, California; La Jolla Mu¬ 
seum of Contemporary Art, California; 
Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minne¬ 
sota; The Fort Worth Art Museum, Texas. 

1976 Rochester Institute of Technology, Roches¬ 
ter, New York. “Spectrum.” (Photographs.) 
Basel Art Fair, Switzerland. “Art 7 76.” 

1977 “The Contemporary South.” An exhibition 
of photographs and poetry organized by the 
New Orleans Museum of Art for the Inter¬ 
national Communications Agency (formerly 
United States Information Agency). Trav¬ 
eled to Madrid, Tehran, Paris and Brest, 
France, Oslo, Stockholm, Bucharest, Lisbon, 
Hong Kong, Peking, Tokyo and five other 
Japanese cities, Islamabad, Pakistan. Sev¬ 
eral catalogue/brochures were published by 
individual I.C.A. overseas posts. 

Galerie Zabriskie, Paris, France. “10 Photo- 
graphes contemporains/tendances actuelles 
aux Etats-Unis.” 

Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, 
Connecticut. “Five Years of Collecting Pho¬ 

Indiana University Art Museum, Blooming¬ 
ton. “Contemporary Color Photography— 
an Invitational Exhibit.” 

Photokina , Kunsthalle, Cologne, West Ger¬ 
many, and Arles, France. “The Second Gen¬ 
eration of Colour Photographers” (orga¬ 
nized by Camera magazine). Photokina 

Morgan Gallery, Kansas City, Missouri. 
“William Christenberry - William Eggleston 
—Color Photographs.” 

Longwood Gallery, Massachusetts College 
of Art, Boston. “Bill Christenberry - Walker 

Vision Gallery, Boston, Massachusetts. 
“8x10x10.” (Photographs.) 

The Currier Gallery of Art, Manchester, 
New Hampshire. “By the Side of the Road.” 
Catalogue. (Photographs.) 

Neue Sammlung, Staatliches Museum fur 
angewandte Kunst, Munich, West Germany. 
“Amerikanische Landschaftsphotographie.” 
Catalogue with text by Klaus-Jiirgen Sem- 

The Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, 
Massachusetts. “The Presence of Walker 
Evans.” Catalogue with essays by Isabelle 
Storey and Alan Trachtenberg. 

Mandeville Art Gallery, University of Cali¬ 
fornia San Diego at La Jolla. “Micro-sculp¬ 
ture: Small scale tableaux and architectural 


Cohen, Alan. “New Look at the Old South: The 
Heroic and the Commonplace—Two Exhibits,” 
The Washington Star, June 21, 1977, pp. D-l, 2, ill. 

Davis, Douglas. “Color Shock,” House and Garden, 
vol. 148, no. 9, September 1976, p. 114. 

Davis, Douglas. “Washington,” Arts Magazine, 
vol. 45, no. 4, February 1971, p. 46. 

Forgey, Benjamin. “In the Galleries: Month of 
Sculpture,” The Sunday Star, Washington, D.C., 
December 19, 1971, p. B-4, ill. 

Forgey, Benjamin. “Photographs of Childhood,” 
The Evening Star and Daily News, Washington, 
D.C., April 30, 1973, p. D-4, illus. 

Forgey, Benjamin. “Roadside Glories,” Aperture, 
no. 81, Winter 1978, pp. 34-47 illus. 

Forgey, Benjamin. “Southern Comfort,” Washing¬ 
ton Star-News, April 10, 1974, pp. B-l, 3, illus. 

Forgey, Benjamin. “The Roots of His Art Must 
Tap Southern Soil,” The Washington Star, April 
8, 1976, pp. C-l, 3, illus. 

Forgey, Benjamin. “Washington, D.C.: William 
Christenberry at the Corcoran Gallery and Jeffer¬ 
son Place,” Art in America, vol. 61, no. 3, May- 
June 1973, p. 112, ill. 

Frank, Peter. “William Christenberry,” Art News, 
vol. 76, no. 3, March 1977, p. 144. 

Gold, Barbara. “Shooting shotgun shacks,” The 
Sun, Baltimore, Maryland, November 25, 1973, p. 
D-10, ill. 

Kramer, Hilton. “Art: Feininger’s Visionary Style,” 
The New York Times, December 24, 1976, p. C-16. 

Lopes Cardozo, Judith. “William Christenberry, 
Zabriskie Gallery: Lucas Samaras, Pace Gallery,” 
Artforum, vol. 15, no. 7, March 1977, pp. 68-70, 

Phillips, Ellen. “Gallery: William Christenberry,” 
The Washingtonian, vol. 11, no. 5, February 1976, 
pp. 79-81, illus. 

Porter, Allan, ed. “The Second Generation of 
Color Photographers,” Camera, vol. 56, no. 7, July 
1977, p. 19, ill. p. 13. 

Richard, Paul. “American Esthetic in Plain and 
Spooky Photos,” The Washington Post, June 18, 
1977, p. B-4, ill. 

Sollins, Susan. “William Christenberry at Henry I 
and Henri II,” Art in America, vol. 62, no. 4, July- 
August 1974, p. 93. 

Tannous, David. “Capital Art: In the Major 
Leagues?” and “Those Who Stay,” Art in America, 
vol. 66, no. 4, July-August 1978, pp. 70-87, 135. 

Tannous, David. “Christenberry Art: Capturing 
the Mood,” The Washington Post, April 16, 1975, 
pp. B-l, 11, illus. 

Tannous, David. “William Christenberry,” Wood¬ 
wind, Washington, D.C., vol. 4, no. 14, April 24, 
1973, p. 1, illus. 

Tannous, David. “William Christenberry at Za¬ 
briskie,” Art in America, vol. 65, no. 4, July-Au¬ 
gust 1977, pp. 97-98, ill. 

Wittenberg, Clarissa. “Mirrors of the Self,” Wash¬ 
ington Review of the Arts, vol. 2, no. 1, Spring 

Zito, Tom. “Washington Photography: Art,” The 
Washington Post/Potomac, May 23, 1976, pp. 16, 
26-27, ill. p. 17. 




Mrs. Albert Abramson 
Mrs. Melvin Alper 
Mrs. Philip Amram 
Mr. Smith Bagley 

Mrs. Bernhard G. Bechhoefer, ex officio 

Mr. James Biddle 

Mr. Niles W. Bond, Secretary 

Mr. Chester Carter 

Mrs. Robert Dudley, ex officio 

The Honorable William H. G. Fitzgerald 

Mr. Lee M. Folger, Treasurer 

Mr. Carl M. Freeman 

Mr. John H. Hall, 2nd Vice President 

Mr. George E. Hamilton, Jr. 

Mr. Hadlai A. Hull 
Mr. Hugh N. Jacobsen 

Mr. Freeborn G. Jewett, Jr., 1st Vice President 

Mr. Gilbert H. Kinney 

Mr. David Lloyd Kreeger, President 

Mrs. John A. Logan 

Mrs. Leonard H. Marks 

Mr. Charles McKittrick 

Ms. Constance Mellon 

The Honorable J. William Middendorf, II 

Mrs. John U. Net 

Mr. Mandell J. Ourisman 

Mr. Maxwell Oxman 

Mrs. Donald Petrie 

Mr. Michael M. Rea 

Mrs. Walter Salant 

Mr. B. Francis Saul, II 

Mr. Frederic W. Schwartz, Jr. 

Mr. Leonard L. Silverstein 
Mr. Adolph Slaughter 
Mrs. John Lewis Smith 
Mr. Carleton B. Swift, Jr. 

Mrs. Maurice B. Tobin 

Mrs. Wynant D. Vanderpool, Jr. 

Mr. Robert L. Walsh, Jr. 

Mrs. Brainard H. Warner, III 

Mrs. John W. Warner 

Mr. J. Burke Wilkinson 

Mr. Curtin Winsor, Jr., Assistant Treasurer 

Mrs. Peter Wood, ex officio 

The Honorable Stanley Woodward 

Mrs. David N. Yerkes 

Frederick M. Bradley 
Gordon Gray 
Corcoran Thom, Jr. 


Peter C. Marzio, Director 

Jane Livingston, Associate Director 

Edward J. Nygren, Curator of Collections 

Frances Fralin, Assistant Curator 

Linda C. Simmons, Assistant Curator of Collections 

Marti Mayo, Coordinator of Exhibitions 

Martha Pennigar, Curatorial Assistant 

Pamela Lawson, Secretary to the Associate Director 

Sheena Parkinson, Secretary to the Curator of Collections 

Susan P. Williams, Registrar 

Shelby White Cave, Associate Registrar 

Robert Scott Wiles, Conservator 

Fern Bleckner, Paper Conservation Assistant 

Anthony Blazys, Preparator 

James Opinsky, Assistant Preparator 

Barbara Moore, Chief Education Officer 
Jane Brown, Education Officer 
Theresa Simmons, Education Assistant 

Sheila Muccio, Director for Development 

Francis Harper, Administrative Officer 

William O. Snead, Director of Building Projects 

Carolyn Campbell, Director of Public Relations and Events 

Ann Kerwin, Administrative Assistant 

Lorn a Tilley, Executive Secretary 

Susan Julian Gates, Membership and Special Events Coordinator 

Sandra Briscuso, Membership and Special Events Coordinator 

Ann-Caroline Lindgren, Development Secretary 

Robert Stiegler, Comptroller 

Alfred Heinman, Bookkeeper 

Ellen Wright, Corcoran Shop Manager 

Sharon Caldwell, Corcoran Shop Assistant 

Howard J. Osborn, Security Officer 

Einar Gomo, Building Superintendent