Reading: William Christenberry by William Christenberry (Aperture)

Some regular readers of this blog may have begun to wonder whether its temporary transformation into a clearinghouse for updates on the grave situation in Haiti risks becoming permanent. Although I will do my best to continue the flow of Haiti news, especially once the major media has inevitably turned away from what will certainly be a very long story, I want to assure you that I will never abandon antarcticiana's core mission, which consists in large part of posting long and generally unread reviews and remarks about books I'm reading, regardless of their publication date.

It is always a delight to discover a great artist about whom you were totally ignorant, despite the embarrassment. For instance, I keep wondering how a cultured fellow like myself, interested in photography and sculpture, can have lived forty-six years without the name William Christenberry ever having registered in my consciousness? It's mortifying.

On the drive to New Orleans, Laura and I made a detour, a sort of pilgrimage, through Hale County, Alabama, a couple of counties south of Tuscaloosa, off the interstate. It is one of the state's poorest, and Alabama is one of the poorest states. In a couple of arenas Hale County might even be considered an icon of American underdevelopment. Many of Walker Evan's photographs for his depression-era collaboration with James Agee, Let us now Praise Famous Men, were taken there, of malnourished back-country folks living in grinding poverty. Christenberry's work in Hale County, so near his home town, was in part inspired by his discovery of that book when it was reprinted in 1960.

And in the 1990s, Hale County became the favored petri-dish for the late MacArthur genius architect Samuel Mockbee's Rural Studio, a unique effort to put cutting-edge avant-garde architecture at the service of the poor. Our intention was to go and see some of the houses his students have built there, at extraordinarily low cost, for marginalized families more accustomed to living in rotting single-wide trailers than in Dwell-Magazine-like splendor.

I'm now working on a story about what we can learn from Mockbee about architecture, so often an elitist profession (how many in the middle class, let alone the poor, have the resources to hire architects?). It was while researching that I discovered Christenberry, who was born in Tuscaloosa in 1936 and began taking strangely intimate photographs of buildings, trees and objects in Hale County in the early 1960s. A multi-disciplinary artist, Christenberry first began using photography as a kind of notational system to feed his other work, but fifty years into his career, the photograph seems to me to be at the center of his enterprise.

Returning to Hale County again and again, perhaps annually, he has photographed and rephotographed structures and locations and vistas in decline, evolution and transformation. His work also sums collectively into a kind of catalog of vernacular typologies, of farm structures, churches, and collapsing houses. (This links his work directly to the aesthetic and approach of the Rural Studio. The small green barnlike structure on this page--I coincidentally took this photograph of it before I had come across Christenberry via Google, a day or so after arriving in New Orleans--is one of his favorite and most photographed structures. It is right next door to the patchwork of rusted tin roofs that make up the cladding of an adjacent Rural Studio building).

Christenberry's images are in some ways conceptually similar to the work of other photographers I number among my favorites: Bernd and Hilla Becher, Camilo José Vergara, and Eduardo del Valle and Mirta Gómez. I've written here about the Bechers, whose rigorous (dare I say Germanic?) adherence to consistent, repetitive compositional strictures is essentially clinical. There is nothing elegiac or emotional about their collections of dozens and dozens of water towers, framework facades, or grain elevators. Considering their choices of subject matter as a whole it seems clear that they are interested in artifacts of human endeavor and industry that will one day inevitably fade into obsolescence, but there is no lament to be found in their clean compositions. In Christenberry's work, however, I sense a deep and abiding longing for the landscape. His revisitations are not an exploration of architectural form so much as a plumbing of his own memory and imagination. He returns again and again to Hale County, to dip his bucket into the well of inspiration.

In a project with comparable elements, José Vergara photographs the same stretches of inner-city blight again and again, over years. Camden, Detroit, Newark and Harlem are some of his favorite haunts. He has, I sense, a love-hate relationship with his subjects. He cannot live without his beloved ghettoized landscapes of collapsing, humble buildings and transitional shopfronts, for they are his constant inspiration. But taken as a whole, his photographic catalog of devastation is as incisive a critique of racist political attitudes, unequal resource distribution and failed urban policy as any written sociology. He is little concerned with lighting and composition and the other niceties of the medium, all of which would distract from his rush to capture the enormity of the wasted landscape, lest we continue to forget it, continue to avoid it. No one single Vergara image stands alone as an artistic masterpiece; instead, his work's power resides in its breadth and totality. The website Invincible Cities presents only three of Vergara's subject communities, but contains hundreds of images of each, like a personalized google map charting decades of wanderings in the ghettos of America. There is nothing relaxed, or relaxing, about this, in contrast to the work of Christenberry, which finds the author returning to the spiritual home of his imagined and remembered landscape. In the Hale County revisitations the maniacal creepings of the kudzu are like the fond but suffocating embrace of an old friend. The slowly collapsing sheds and old barns have a humanity to them, a sedate and tranquil mortality. His objects and structures slide over the years into a dignified decline. Their destiny is a gracious death by natural causes.

Del Valle and Gómez are more directly concerned with death and decay, primarily in Mexico. Their multiple photographs of the same modest Yucatecan structures document an evolution from wattle and daub Mayan building techniques to the supremacy of the economical and convenient but aesthetically inferior cinderblock. This work isn't about architectural progress or regression, however, so much as it is a meditation on the passing of culture. (Had the palm-frond huts of Haiti never been "improved" by cement, the loss of life there would have been diminished by magnitudes). The Cuban-born couple also owe something to Hollis Frampton, who once filled a developing tray with Spaghetti-O's and photographed it daily as the strands mouldered, shriveled, and dessicated, an experiment much more sublime than it sounds. In contrast to Del Valle and Gómez, when Christenberry goes back again and again to Hale County, he often chooses different angles and vantage points from which to capture his subjects. Rather than documenting change, it seems to me that he is always trying to find something new in those familiar places, something he missed before.

I'll be leaving New Orleans soon, and I'm thinking I'll pass back through Hale County myself, to see what else I might find.

Let's be clear: I took all the photographs here before I had even come across Christenberry, so at best they are an idiot savant's homage.


L. Harmon said...

Could you elaborate on what you mean by saying that architecture is "so often an elitist profession".
Would we have been aware of Hale County, would we have gone to Mason's Bend if it weren't for an architect?
There is a lot more that architecture can do for people than provide a roof over their heads, expensive or free.

They say it's a cold world said...

Grumpy. Virtually all buildings involving architects are conceived, commissioned and utilized by the world's economic elite. When it comes to housing, worldwide, I would guesstimate that far less than 10% of homes constructed benefit from the participation of an architect. The happy exceptions are public buildings, but even these, if designed by architects, are disproportionately located in affluent corners of the world. It is unquestionably a luxury to be able to have an architect involved in a building project. The world's poorest, in the great majority, build their own buildings, perhaps with the help of transmitted knowledge or experienced local people.

Your father's commitment to sensitive public or educational structures is admirable, as is his enthusiasm for the Rural Studio, which he shared with us; I wasn't attacking architects or architecture. Yes, the poor can obtain legal counsel, but that doesn't prevent the law from being an elitist profession. And, just as in the legal arena, "So often" does not mean "always."

Widespread interest in the Hale County Rural Studio, and, albeit in a celebrity-driven mode, Brad Pitt's "Make it Right" houses, absolutely arises in part because the poor are so rarely the clients of good, or any, architects. They are the exception to the elitist tendency.

As for the things architecture can do for people beyond housing them, historically most people's exposure to the products of architecture is via buildings designed to inspire awe, through metaphorical representations of God, power, or wealth. The great pyramids, the Mayan temples, most cathedrals and palaces, and the World Trade Center all fall into this pattern. One is meant to sense in such structures the unassailable supremacy of a royal family, a nation, a religious or political doctrine, or of capital, and by extension comprehend one's own insignificance.

L. Harmon said...

Grumpy! save it for the article.

オテモヤン said...
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shabegardens said...

I appreciate the Bechers and their unabashed Germanic'ness. True that they don't play to the integration of the structure in the landscape, but that is intentional. The repetition of the composition in each photo works to emphasize the typology of the building type and brings forth the subtle variations in form. Their whole endeavor is about the repetition; poetic landscaping would emphasize the individual sitings too much.
Anyway, glad to see in a later post that you are still dancing....and sweating. A little consistency in the world is a good thing.