BEN NUCKOLS, AP
William Christenberry, an artist renowned for photographs of crumbling buildings and rusty cars that captured the decay of the rural South, has died. He was 80.
Christenberry (CHRIS-en-bear-ee) died Nov. 28 at a nursing home in Washington of complications from Alzheimer’s disease, his daughter, Kate Christenberry, told The Associated Press.
Christenberry lived for decades in Washington, where he taught painting and drawing at the Corcoran School of Art. But his work centered on Alabama, where he was born and raised.
He spent much of his childhood in rural Hale County in west-central Alabama, the locale made famous by James Agee and Walker Evans’ book “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.”
The book, and Evans’ photographs in particular, became a source of inspiration to Christenberry. He ended up making annual summer visits to Hale County to photograph country stores, churches and homes and document the ravages of time.
William R. Ferris, a history professor at the University of North Carolina and the former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, has called Christenberry one of the three most important photographers of the South — alongside Evans and William Eggleston.
“He viewed his art as a prism for understanding both the beauty and the nightmare of the American South,” Ferris told AP. “He is among the top, the very top photographers who worked in the South, and in his case it was a lifetime of work.”
Christenberry earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Alabama and trained as a painter, not as a photographer. He initially took photographs with a cheap Kodak Brownie camera to aid his paintings and sculptures, and it was Evans who encouraged him to view the photographs themselves as art, Ferris said.
He later took pictures with a large-format camera. His photographs were exhibited and included in major collections around the United States and in Europe.
“Like (William) Faulkner and (Eudora) Welty, his life was totally devoted to his craft as an artist, from a very young age until his death,” Ferris said.