William Christenberry's brilliant photos don't come to light 

The Dark Room

Photographs: William Christenberry 1961-2005
Through March 16
Gibbes Museum of Art
135 Meeting St.
(843) 722-2706

With the publication of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men in 1941 with writer James Agee, a classic chronicle of the tribulations facing poor white sharecroppers during the Depression, photographer Walker Evans defined the iconography of the South.

His images evoking a dignified but depraved people, a land of lost history, and a place where folk tradition, mythology, and lore still held sway have been so widely imitated in the last 60 years that attempts to see a barn, road sign, or chicken coop differently have seemed hopelessly derivative.

You'd think that would be the case with William Christenberry, whose photographs are on view in a poorly displayed, dimly lit, and yet nonetheless edifying exhibit at the Gibbes Museum through March 16.

But it's not.

Christenberry was born in the region where Evans and Agee went to gather material for their book — Hale County, Ala. In fact, Christenberry was born the year they arrived, in 1936. It was years later, in 1960, after Christenberry had established himself as a serious artist of painting, sculpture, and mixed-media assemblage, that he learned of Evans' work.

It had a profound effect. The South was now a respectable subject for art and the camera, for Christenberry, was an entirely new medium of expression. Since then, he has focused on his birthplace and its environs to become widely known for preserving not only the conventions first established by Evans but also the fast-fading memory of a fast-changing South.

The exhibit at the Gibbes includes work from the early 1960s to 2005, many of which have never been publicly displayed. The show covers a range of subjects (buildings, signs, pastures). In the differences of texture, light, and color, this show reveals Christenberry's technical mastery over an array of cameras — a hand-held Kodak Brownie in his early attempts at photography, an 8-by-10-inch view camera of the sort innovated in the late 19th century, and a 35mm camera.

The early Christenberry was drawn to a microcosmic South. In many small, three-by-three inch shots are the images of death and decay — freshly dug graves, many of them adorned with flowers made out of Styrofoam egg cartons, and on one wall a sequence of six photographs tracking the decline of a building from 1967, when it was a country store, to 1982, when it became a shell of its former self.

These early works evoke a sense of time passing by. Yet there is little if any sense of nostalgia for the past. Christenberry seems compelled to document, but not to comment. It's an impersonal approach to personal experience that we see evolve.

Later works are more formal, as Christenberry traded in his Kodak Brownie for 8-by-10 view camera. These larger works, predominantly of churches and decimated architecture, let texture, color, and composition speak for themselves, as if Christenberry were attempting, like Evans before him, to remove himself from the viewer's experience.

They look like paintings — flat and vivid and seamless in their color. Shots of the sky, from shades of dark blue to hues of soft white, are "like milk," as one museum-goer noted with pleasure. The Gibbes exhibit excels at showing Christenberry's brilliant exploitation of the 8-by-10-inch view camera, which required him to envision a shot before taking it and allowed him to capture images sapped of their three dimensionality.

But there are problems, and I'm sad to say, they cannot be overlooked.

First is the disorganized arrangement of the sequenced photos. While one set of photographs, showing the gradual disappearance of a building underneath a beautiful sycamore tree, indicates by year the order in which the photographs were taken, another set of sequential shots (the ones of a country store in decline that I mention above) don't bother to do that. You're left to guess the order in which the photos were taken.

Random objects also populate the exhibit. A single sculpture, a miniature house made of wood, paint, and wax, sits all by itself with no information explaining what it is. I suppose a docent fills in the blanks.

Other objects, however, prove more distracting.

Christenberry was fond of taking pictures of hand-made signs — advertisements, religious signs, no trespassing signs. He developed a habit of "acquiring" some of these. A handful are on display next to photographs of them. This arrangement — a sign and a photograph of said sign — is not just confusing in its arbitrariness (only a few works get this treatment) but also diminishing of Christenberry's work.

The most extreme example of this flaw might be the sign that reads "Do You Believe in Jesus?" The real sign makes its photographic counterpart seem muted and blurry. I might not have noticed, but setting them side by side invites the viewer to do so, therefore undermining the photo's value.

Lastly, there is the lighting. It is bad.

Perhaps the exhibit would be better served in a different room. As it is, the show is in the room with the tallest ceiling, where light must travel a long way before illuminating Christenberry's photos. One could barely see the detail, even the subject matter, of his smallest photographs. With larger works, this wasn't as problematic, but I still had to get too close to some photographs to avoid seeing my reflection in the glass.

The Gibbes deserves applause for presenting a Christenberry retrospective of this caliber. By showing a range of work over a long period of time, one can better appreciate the artist's vision and achievement. That was, certainly, the museum's curatorial intent. I'd just like to see it better.


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