William Christenberry - Working from memory (some thoughts on book)
I just returned from Berlin, Mecca of photographic books and photography in general. I was in many stores with used photo equipment, films, books and other stuff. Prices are much lower there, so I was especially attentive for the books.
I found William Christenberry’s Working from memory in a book store near Alexanderplatz and it costed only 14 euros, since it was discounted for some reason. It was a simple choice, a must have for me.
Christenberry (b. 1936) is an American artist originally from Alabama, currently working in Washington D.C. His art practice is a diverse one, since he studied as a painter, also worked as a sculptor and photographer. Among Eggleston he was one of the pioneers of colour photography. At first glance it seems that Christenberry used photography only as a sketch for his drawings and paintings, but going for photography at that time was easy, if not necessary because at that time photography was an emerging field of art. Trough he was using a small out of date brownie camera. His first images seemed as a perfect combination of feeling for colours and mastering the brownie’s optical limitations. In seventies he had started using 8 x 10 view camera, although he didn’t know nothing about tilting and shifting, that 8 x 10 camera enables.
W. Christenbarry - Church, Sprott, Alabama, 1971.
The book was published by Steidl and consequentially the emphasis was on photographic storytelling. Working from memory is a wonderful book consisting of life long memories about artist’s life that influenced his career and shaped his way of seeing. I could say, that this book is a “relaxed” one, because of simple, unique and honest stories, that reader can absorb in just a few moments.
Christianberry’s way of story telling is typically friendly, simple, rural with explicit moral at the end, and it doesn’t seem to me, that art folks from cities are familiar with that. That way of story telling remains as a part of stereotype about folks in all southern states. If you read stories one by one it seems that there is no “hard” philosophy behind, but in fact there is, and for Christenberry it is all about his work process, family and tradition in general. His art is about being confident with who you are. And precisely this is revealed at the beginning of the book with a quotation:
“My work is a totality of things, how drawing, painting, photography, sculpture - all of these things come together in an attempt to make a statement about my lige and where I’m from, what I care about.” - William Christenberry
W. Christenberry: Church, Sprott, Alabama, 1981
The book is printed and designed friendly, either you just flip trough it or you read it carefully. But what would drive someone to make a book like this? The simplest answer would be, that the artist was ageing, and he realized it. I think this is a bad try in Christenberry’s case, since he has grew up in the south, where age and dead are a simple fact. I don’t claim that all of this has nothing to do with his age, since the book looks like a learning book of modesty and dedication to what you are doing. With the book we get to know what shaped Christenberry as an artist, and why he continuously repeated to travel to the land of his ancestors. On his annual trips he was photographing the same motives and while he was cruising around he was on the chase for new materials for his visual fascination over the south. With each annual trip the mosaic of motives seemed more complete, what is by my opinion the key aspect of thirty years of continuously repeating trips to the south. And also it is clear that after that many years there was a certain duality in understanding relationship between personal art and idea of a space. The consequence of photographing the same motives over and over is that Christenberry’s vision of south was implemented in the landscape itself. The clear idea of southern identity was established.
W. Christenberry: Red Building in Forest, 1983
I love the quality of colour of Christenberry’s photos. At first glance they often seem almost untrue and from another world, what makes the objects on his photographs like a miniature models standing in the real landscape. When Christenberry met Walker Evans he was still using old brownie camera and Evans encouraged him to do so, because he claimed, that Christenberry was able to use little camera in a way that he would get outstanding results. This seems interesting and I believe this is because Christenberry didn’t feel comfortable with complicated cameras. Some friends encouraged him to try out 8 x 10 view camera, but he used it in a way like he used brownie before. The photos became full of details, but the content and it’s representation didn’t change a lot.
W. Christenberry: Palmist Building, Havana, Alabama, 1980
I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in America, American photography or art. This book is actually a cross-over of book and photo book. It is a book, where each story works like a short dream sequence and each photograph is a proof of it’s story, for Christenberry a proof of Alabama’s dreamy tradition and past.
W. Christenberry: Signs in Landscape, Near Marion, Alabama, 1975
William Christenberry, 2008. Working from Memory. Published by Steidl. (Text by William Christenberry based on conversations with Susanne Lange 108 pages, 50 colour plates 23 cm x 25 cm)
All photographs © William Christenberry
Text by Aljaž Celarc, aljo.celarc (at) gmail.com