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William Christenberry

(b. 1936)


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(1936– ).

Photographer, painter, sculptor, and installation artist. Most of his work centers on themes drawn from the traditional rural South, where he grew up. His varied output includes evocative documentary photographs of Southern landscape and architecture; sculptural objects based on architectural forms; assemblages and installations often incorporating timeworn found objects; and an extended project addressing the difficult subject of the Ku Klux Klan. In all media, Christenberry synthesizes the history of modern art with reverence for the vernacular and the small farmer's vanishing way of life. A native of Tuscaloosa, Christenberry spent childhood summers on family farms in nearby Hale County. From 1954 to 1959 he studied at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. While earning a bachelor of fine arts and a master's degree in painting, he developed an abstract expressionist style. In 1961 he moved to New York. There he observed emerging pop art and soon befriended Walker Evans, whose work had strongly attracted him. A year later, he accepted a teaching position at Memphis (Tennessee) State University (now the University of Memphis). Later in 1962 he began his artistic meditation on the Ku Klux Klan with a series of drawings and paintings. This work has continued and diversified into the ongoing Klan Room, which has grown to include several hundred objects and images. After 1964 he rarely painted in the traditional oil-on-canvas technique, turning instead to mixed-media forms and, with time, to greater involvement in photography. In 1968 Christenberry moved to Washington, D.C., where he has since taught at the Corcoran College of Art and Design. However, he has maintained his connection to the South through regular summer visits to central Alabama. Although he had taken snapshots as studies for paintings since the late 1950s, he did not think of his photography as an art form until the early 1970s. In 1977 he began regularly using an 8 × 10-inch view camera to make hushed and stately documents of the South's agrarian environment, focusing on such subjects as abandoned buildings, cemeteries, gas stations, all-engulfing kudzu vines, clotheslines, and Civil War battlefields. Christenberry has always photographed primarily in color, and in the 1970s the persuasive example of his work contributed to the acceptance of color in art photography. Southern Photographs appeared in 1983.

Subjects: Art.


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