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William Christenberry's Brownie Photos

By Peggy Roalf   Tuesday March 30, 2010

William Christenberry is perhaps most widely known for his Southern photographs, shot with an 8 x 10 camera and presented as large-scale digital prints in gallery exhibitions, or in large format, beautifully printed books. This February, at Hemphill Gallery in Washington D.C., and again, two weeks ago in New York at Hemphill's installation at AIPAD, The Photography Show, there was a rare opportunity to see his early Brownie snapshots.

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Row 1, left to right: Building with False Brick Siding, Warsaw, Alabama. 1974; House And Car, Near Akron, Alabama, 1978 (Feb.); Blue Trailer, Near Demopolis,Alabama, 1977. Row 2, left to right: The Bar-B-Q Inn, Greensboro, Alabama, 1977; Colburn Grocery, Uniontown, Alabama, 1977; 5 Cent Sign, Demopolis, Alabama, 1976. Copyright William Christenberry, courtesy Hemphill Gallery.

Writing about these small drugstore prints in the Washington Post, Blake Gopnik said that these served as his "sketches" for what would come later, in annual trips back to Hale County, after he had moved to the nation's capital. "Like so many artists," Gopnik wrote, "Christenberry's work seems to gets its start from an encounter with the world. And as with many other artists, the working-up of that raw material into finished art doesn't always lead to much improvement. Watching Leonardo da Vinci coming to grips with reality in a quick sketch is often as rewarding as seeing how he transformed that first encounter into the 'art' of painting."

Apparently Christenberry didn't think much of these little snapshots until he showed them to his mentor, Walker Evans, who was an editor at Fortune magazine at the time. Gopnik points out that they turned out to be the "sketching" that underlies all of Christenberry's art. In fact the photo in row one, center above, is Christenberry's sketch for a photograph he later made with an 8 x 10 camera, and which subsequently became the signature image for the first edition of Southern Photographs (Aperture 1983).

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