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Capturing Time with Smithsonian Exhibitor William Christenberry
Christenberry documents a changing rural south.

William Christenberry

William Christenberry

William Christenberry

William Christenberry

To William Christenberry, all is not what it seems. He breathes life into the inanimate, giving a soul to a building or exposing its character in hyperbole.

Wasting no time wallowing in nostalgia, he's a visual poet, treating the inevitability of time passing with tenderness and care.

Simply put, his images show "how things change and how I change," says the 70-year-old Washington, D.C.-based photographer, painter and sculptor.

Every year, like a pilgrimage to Mecca , he treks south to the place of his youth, Hale County in rural Alabama . The region fills his heart. It is the only place where he snaps photos. This body of work has spanned decades, and signifies how far he's come from his roots, how far he's come away from them and what he must do to stay grounded.

To him, a seemingly normal structure is not space surrounded by four walls, but a form with a past, present and future. Like tracking a flower's bloom, he collects photos of each of his "chosen" buildings year after year, immortalizing its changes right up and to its ultimate demise.

His passion for photography began as a mistake. Hale County was a muse of sorts, as he looked for a way to come to grips with the subject matter of his youth. He took pictures of the area with a Brownie, a tiny camera without a focusing device, to use as a reference for paintings. Yet, the paintings were not photorealistic.

The soft lens of the Brownie made the color references seem just right. There were no hard edges. "It's not sharp; it's not blurred, but soft. That brought about my continuous use of the camera," he says.

Photos of Alabama 's landscape offered him feeling and empathy. It resituated how Christenberry felt when he responded to a piece of vernacular architecture in areas like Greensboro, Sprott and the Talladega National Forest .

The images show the enigmatic, beautiful and evil. From country cemeteries, churches, bars and barns to Ku Klux Klan-related imagery which show the "darker side of life of racism and prejudice," he doesn't hold back. No fancy angles or unique perspectives here, Christenberry prefers taking his photos head on. Exposing all.

Upon his return to Alabama , he can hardly wait to see the same places and subjects. "I love to see how a certain structure has changed ever so slightly from one year to the next," or even if it disappeared. After 50 years of documenting the past and present, many of his subjects are gone -- some were torn down, others collapsed or burned.

For one series, he traces the life of a bar, called Bar-B-Q, for 40 years beginning in 1967. In the mid-eighties it was burned and restructured as a brick building. Then, it was torn down again and became a concrete slab.

"I'm almost obsessed with time passing," he adds. "It intrigues me to no end."

A year-long installation of Christenberry's work (now through July 8, 2007) titled, "Passing Time" is exhibited at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington , D.C. He continues to teach at Corcoran College of Art + Design in Washington , D.C. and authored the recent book "William Christenberry."

Not matter how much notoriety he receives; he will continue to make the annual trip to Alabama. "It is place where I'm free. Even when I'm 800 miles away, it's still where my heart is," he says.