New York

William Christenberry, Palmist Building (Summer), Havana Junction, Alabama, 1980, ink-jet print, 26 5/8 × 34 1/8". © William Christenberry.

William Christenberry, Palmist Building (Summer), Havana Junction, Alabama, 1980, ink-jet print, 26 5/8 × 34 1/8". © William Christenberry.

William Christenberry

Pace/MacGill Gallery

William Christenberry, Palmist Building (Summer), Havana Junction, Alabama, 1980, ink-jet print, 26 5/8 × 34 1/8". © William Christenberry.

Years ago I was talking to a woman from Virginia about Ireland, where I grew up, and she said, “I love Ireland. It reminds me of home.” Ireland not being known for its tobacco nor Virginia for its stout, that surprised me, until she said, “They’re both tragic.” Indeed, both Ireland and the South have deeply embedded histories of defeat, of eclipse by a nearby elsewhere, and in both places, as William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” I often think of that conversation when I look at William Christenberry’s photographs of Alabama, but I’m also reminded of the Band songwriter Robbie Robertson’s description of the South as a place “where you can actually drive down the highway at night, and if you listen, you hear music. I don’t know if it’s coming from the people or if it’s coming from the air. It lives, and it’s rooted there.” A culture of rich heritage and a culture of loss—and that loss bound up with a history of brutality, of slavery and its aftermath, that for Christenberry was an immediate pressure: All this came through in a body of photographs that Walker Evans called “perfect little poems.” The artist’s death last November was a culture of loss all to itself.

The recent exhibition “Summer | Winter” capitalized on these tensions in Christenberry’s art, and on his long-standing habit of returning repeatedly to the places that he attended to, by pairing photographs of the same sites taken in those different seasons of the year. A plain-spoken pointer to the passage of time and the layering of memory, and a metaphor for the transit from ripeness to age, the show was a simpler proposition than Christenberry’s work is when seen as a whole, but it contained versions of some of his most iconic and familiar images, and the blunt conceit worked. The exhibition opened appropriately with two photos Christenberry took with a Kodak Brownie, legendarily the camera he was given as a child and made distinctive use of as an adult. Both titled Green Warehouse, Newbern, Alabama, and made in the summer of 2000 and the winter of 2001, respectively, the photos are frontal views of a windowless structure with three unevenly spaced doors and an oddly climbing roof with a kind of witch’s-hat peak in the center. The Brownie’s peculiar rendering of color and relative lack of detail make the building feel slightly unreal, and the prints’ small size—they’re just three and a quarter inches tall—concentrates this visual idiosyncrasy and intensifies its atmospheric pull. That’s still more true of the two photos of a church in Sprott, Alabama, taken with a Brownie in the summer of 1977 and the winter of 1971: We could almost be looking not at an existing church but at a model or a stage set. (Indeed, Christenberry made dollhouse-like scale models of both of these buildings, as he did of a good number of his architectural subjects.)

The show also included a range of larger prints made with a view camera, such as those of an abandoned store in Havana Junction, Alabama, with a palmist’s sign in the window. As he did the warehouse and the church, Christenberry photographed this derelict building many times, continuing to study the site even after the store had completely fallen down. The shots of it here, each printed at over two feet tall, were made in the summer of 1980 and the winter of 1981, and it was in photos like these, and like the still larger prints showing a straggly but grand Alabama pear tree, from 2002 and 2000, that the show’s summer/winter device was most effective: We depend on winter to actually see the palmist store, since in the summer photo it’s almost buried in the foliage that is overtaking it, while the pear tree, effulgent in summer, in winter becomes a colorless skeleton. These are quite wonderful pictures, but they also fall into a more familiar landscape genre than do Christenberry’s jewel-like photographs made with a Brownie, images whose subtle unreality paradoxically strengthens their sense of involvement with and meditation on a very particular place.

David Frankel