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William Christenberry: Photographs, 1961-2005

William Christenberry

Picturing the old South

by Katie Whitney

From the May, 2008 issue

"?Do You Believe in Jesus I Do!" A rusty found sign sporting this run-on sentence - with its playful punctuation and jaunty hand-painted font - hangs next to a picture of itself in the U-M Museum of Art Off/Site. The sign and the photograph, taken by William Christenberry, reflect the exhibit's documentary candor. In a collection of photographs taken between 1961 and 2005, Christenberry, an Alabama native, chronicles the passage of time and the effects of age and weathering on his favorite subjects: the simple wooden structures, graveyards, and signs of rural Alabama.

For some of these shots Christenberry uses a Kodak Brownie, an inexpensive, square-format box camera simple enough for a child to use. This doesn't surprise me when I reflect on the childlike simplicity of his most ubiquitous composition: the front of an old building situated directly in the center of the frame and surrounded by the rurality of fields, woods, or deserted downtowns. Shot from such a straightforward vantage point, these photographs function almost like children's drawings. The buildings are triangles on top of squares in a closed, often square frame. Nothing strays outside the image except more field, more dirt road, more woods. In their simplicity and repetition, they beg you to take in the small details - the rusty tin roof lying peacefully in front of the house it belonged to, a kudzu vine growing into an open door.

Most of these hauntingly lonely images lack people. In fact, the entire collection includes only one human portrait. An older, tired-looking woman sits on a tattered wooden porch with a tan paper Winn-Dixie grocery sack at her feet, a subtle reminder that plastic bags never caught on here, and some folks still think Dixie might win.

Though this woman made the egg carton flowers in the image hers, those aren't the only Styrofoam handicrafts Christenberry documents. Another image captures kitsch at its most heartbreaking and sincere: an egg-carton cross decorated with pink

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plastic flowers marks the head of a gravestone.

With quiet attention to common details, Christenberry's work captures broken, rustic beauty. But to me, a native Arkansan, it also smacks of southern clichés. Collectively, these images create a portrait of the deep South that walks a fine line between old-fashioned and backwards - between woodsy and backwoodsy. They document certain truths about the South: there are kudzu vines, crumbling old buildings, Styro-crafts, and illiterate people. I just hope these aren't the only southern truths circulating up in these parts.

The sole image acknowledging racism - a southern cliché whose exposure remains imperative - hangs in a (tellingly) marginal space next to some folding chairs and a dark hallway. It depicts a squat building called "The Underground Railroad." With dead leaves and a half-fallen marquee in the foreground, it isn't the most beautiful tableau in the exhibit, but it might be the most poignant.

The exhibition continues through Sunday, June 1.

[Review published May 2008]     (end of article)


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