Hale County, of course, was already famous in photography circles for the work Walker Evans made there in his collaboration with the writer James Agee, later published in the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. In 1935, Evans shot a general store at a crossroads town in Sprott, Alabama, in Perry County, next door to Hale. In 1936, he took a photograph of a nearby church. In Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Agee described the moment the two artists first saw St. James Missionary Baptist: “It was a good enough church from the moment the curve opened and we saw it that I slowed a little and we kept our eyes on it. But as we came even with it the light so held that it shocked us with its goodness straight through the body, so that at the same instant we said Jesus.” About a quarter of a century later, Christenberry met Walker Evans, and the older photographer became the younger man’s mentor and friend.13
Around 1974, Christenberry discovered a building standing alone in the woods of the Talladega National Forest in Hale County. Christenberry loved the way someone had put artificial brick siding on the door of the house as well as the walls. He used his Brownie camera to make a photograph he dropped off at a drug store for development. Almost a decade later, he made another photograph, Red Building in Forest, Hale County, Alabama, 1983. In 1984 and 1985, he used his photographs and his memory to construct a sculpture of the building. In 2000, he made a painting of the structure. He made these bodies of work about other buildings, too, including Green Warehouse, Newbern, Alabama (1973–2004).14
Christenberry even returned to places Evans photographed. That Sprott church, in particular, drew his attention. In an interview, he describes discovering the church while driving in his VW from D.C. to his parents’ house in Alabama with his wife and their baby. In a photograph he made in 1971, the dry air of winter produced a deep blue sky. In 1974 and 1975, he made a sculpture of the Sprott church, using his photographs and thumbnail sketches he drew of the back and sides. He also continued to return to make photographs, including an image shot in 1981. Christenberry described in an interview how he loved the way this building sat isolated and proud in the landscape and the rare symmetry of the two towers. Sprott church, he asserted, was simply “the most beautiful piece of vernacular church architecture” he had ever seen. By the time he took a 1990 photograph, the towers he loved so much were gone. He then made another sculpture, Sprott Church Memory, in 2005.15
In these and related bodies of work, Christenberry explores, in his words, the effects of “time, mankind, and the elements” on the vernacular structures he loves. Like the annual pictures of school kids, his photographs reveal his subjects aging. Paint fades, cracks, and peels or disappears entirely under a new coat. Rafters sag and roofs give way. Window glass cracks and falls out of frames. Siding rots. Trees and vines grow over structures or are beaten back. Walls fall in. Time passes. Christenberry comes back and documents what is there. “The place is so much a part of me. I can’t escape it and have no desire to escape it,” he tells an interviewer. His work, in his words, is “a love affair—a lifetime of involvement with a place. The place is my muse.”16
Over time, as the trips continued, the act of return became as much Christenberry’s subject as the structures themselves. Retracing his own paths in and around Hale County began to function as a ritual practice, a way to give his attachment to place a concrete form. The photographs in this sense function as evidence of this act of worship, of this pilgrimage.
For some viewers, Christenberry’s work suggests Mircea Eliade’s concept of “eternal return.” The repeated gestures of religious rituals dissolve everyday human or “profane” time and catapult participants instead into “mythical” or sacred time. From this perspective, Christenberry’s returns represent Hale County, Alabama, as a sacred space outside history.17
In important respects, all ambitious artists want their art to escape the time in which they work and live outside history. But to see Christenberry’s multiple series as exercises that pull Hale County out of the flow of time is to miss his careful attention to materiality and form. Christenberry tells us that things that exist in the world—even long romanticized vernacular artifacts of the rural South—do not stand still. But as they change, some formal traces remain; even a building in ruins suggests its former footprint and volume. His series of photographs makes visible the sameness and difference that is the very material of history. Circling back may seem like a contradiction but it is this return, in fact, that makes our awareness of the passage of time possible.
It is worth remembering that Christenberry, like Evans and Agee, was a white man enthralled by the Black church and other physical traces of Black vernacular culture. For white southerners, knowing about and appreciating the past could and often did coincide with a belief in white supremacy, even when we disqualify the fake history of the Lost Cause. The Mississippi grandfather that taught me to love history was also at times a Mississippi sheriff. Doing this job meant enforcing white power, often with a gun. At least once, he participated in the killing of an African American man that was at best a case of using excessive force and at worst a lynching.
But William Christenberry was not this kind of white southerner, and he did not love his particular southern place blindly. He faced his region’s violent white supremacy in another body of work he circled back to repeatedly in his career, his Klan Room Tableau. In this complex and changing installation, Christenberry explores the intersection between boys playing with war toys, fraternal organizations, a love of uniforms, and violent white male entitlement. The form and materiality of Christenberry’s work reproduces the Klan’s graphic brilliance, smirking silliness, and nauseating violence. As the alt-right engages in its own form of return, a fascist cosplay we only wish were past, Christenberry’s Klan Room looks horribly, brilliantly new again.18
Part III: Myth and Southern History
Southern artists have long used return as a concept and a practice and an aesthetic to wrestle with the issues of family and place, the region’s terrible beauty, and the burden of history. Like many people, I discovered Sally Mann’s work when she published Immediate Family in 1992. More than twenty years later, I made my own pilgrimage to the farm on the Maury River outside Lexington, the same property where Mann made this earlier work and where she lives today and has her studio. A 1993 photograph called Virginia, Untitled (Blue Hills) captures the beauty of this place with its velvet pastures rolling out to vistas filled with the stacked and pleated foothills and the small mountains of the Blue Ridge. The one-story house shaded by a circling veranda that Sally and Larry Mann built on a hill above the river could not be more different from Emmet and Edith Gowin’s white, wood-framed Danville house and still occupy the same state. But these are the places where these important artists are grounded. They are the places these artists return. And in that way they are also connected to Christenberry’s Hale County.19
Early in her career, Mann was deeply influenced by Emmet Gowin, and a journalist who visited Mann in Lexington around the time she published Immediate Family found one of the older Virginia photographer’s prints hanging in the house she lived in then, closer to town. Like Gowin’s Danville and Edith images, Mann’s photographs of her three children and other family members and friends combine the intimacy of family photos with the formal rigor of art. Occasionally, Mann seems to revisit Gowin like Christenberry revisits Evans. Her photograph of Virginia with grass clippings stuck all over her moist skin, Fallen Child, 1989, is not a literal return. In relation to Gowin’s Nancy and Dwayne, Danville, Virginia (1971), Mann’s subject is a different child, different grass, a different decade, and immediate rather than extended family. But this reworking of Gowin’s subject makes us look past the content of the image to its form, its existence as art. Like Gowin’s family pictures, Mann’s Immediate Family images are about the history of art as much as they are about family. She tackles mythmaking—a troubled tradition in southern history—on an intimate and personal scale, the world she as a mother and as an artist made with her children during summers by the river.20
As the artist confessed to a journalist in a 1992 interview, “I don’t remember the things that other people remember from their childhood … Sometimes I think the only memories I have are those that I’ve created around photographs of me as a child. Maybe I’m creating my own life.” As a mother, she makes this process more self-conscious and deliberate, collaborating with her children Emmett, Jessie, and Virginia in “spinning the story.” Using a shallow focus, sometimes placing a tube around the lens to produce a vignette effect, and directing her children’s gestures and expressions, Mann “fictionalizes” family photographs and distances her art from documentary’s more direct relationship with the world. In the most powerful of these images, like “The Ditch,” the mythical and the documentary coexist. We see the cycle of life and also her son Emmett and his friends playing at the river’s edge in the heat and sand of summer.21
In place of Gowin’s alternate history in relation to Vietnam, Mann gives us an alternate history of parents and children. All mothers, her work suggests, are artists of sorts, with access to a ferocious power to make the world of their children that we use sentimentalism to deny. Yet despite this power, mothers do not have complete control. Kids have their own bodies and minds. The world is out there. Injuries happen. Magic alternates with danger.
Like Gowin, Mann eventually backed away from her family scenes and out into the landscape that surrounded them, tackling more explicitly the politically and racially charged history of representations of her native region. Along with many other contemporary artists, she also began experimenting with what photographers call alternative processes—the use of old or non-commercial technologies, equipment, and papers and other materials. In bodies of work originally titled Deep South and Last Measure, Mann’s use of alternative processes make myth and history—not just what happened in the past but what is remembered as important and the effect of those memories on the present—as much the subject of her work as the people and places on the other side of her lens. When Mann turned in the mid-1990s to landscapes, she began to experiment with alternative film types and technologies. In the late nineties, she learned a nineteenth-century process, coating glass plates with sticky collodion to hold light-sensitive chemicals in order to produce negatives that must be exposed and developed in the ten or so minutes before the material dries. Photographers like Alexander Gardner and George Barnard used this same wet plate process to make their now famous images of Civil War battlefields. “Shooting with collodion,” Mann has said, enabled her to create photographs with “the appearance of having been torn from time itself.”22
While newer papers and the large size of the prints make clear Mann’s work is not historical reenactment, the photographs the artist makes from this process look instantly old. When she begins to invite the kind of flaws and accidents that nineteenth-century photographers considered failures, she adds yet another layer of history, a look that suggests her negatives too have been ravaged by the past. These effects replicate the way the passage of time increases the distance between all photographs and their subjects by erasing the indexical effect, the sense that a photograph presents a slice of the world. In these ways, Mann highlights the hand of the artist, the intermediate set of decisions and actions between the world and the camera. She expands the autonomy of her images as art. And she makes clear that this work is materially and formally about the history of photography as well as the history of the South.23
In her 2018 National Gallery exhibition, a section titled The Land collects images of Virginia farmland and other southern scenes originally part of the series Motherland and Deep South. Landscapes on which antebellum plantations have left their marks have been shot by Walker Evans, Eudora Welty, Clarence John Laughlin, Carrie Mae Weems, and others.Mann’s doubling—old subjects and old processes—works as a metaphor here for the history of history. Change over time is not just something that happens to people and societies and photographs but also to accounts of the past. Romanticism is not so much the effect and the affect here but the subject.