A new exhibition, opening next week at Fundación Mapre in Madrid, focuses on the Deep South landscapes of US photographer William Christenberry (b. 1936, Tuscaloosa, Alabama). Although still making work across a variety of media, Christenberrry turned to photography after being inspired by an encounter in the early 1960's with a collaborative book of photography (Walker Evans) and text (James Agee) Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Capturing the reality and hardship of Hale County, Alabama, Sharecroppers during the Great Depression – the book provided direction for the young Christenberry by the way it pushed the boundaries of the documentary form. Agee's style of combining lyrical and poetic prose with factual information and Evan's brutal and beautiful journalistic visuals expanded the form of how art and photography could witness a situation and make a critique of society.

In Madrid, the exhibition introduces Christenberry by highlighting this influence through a series of six black and white photographs taken in the early 1960's.  Some of the photographs are, in fact, taken of the exact same people, sites and subjects explored earlier by Evans. The first photograph, Elisabeth Tingle at her home in Mill's Hill near Moundville, Alabama (1962), shows a woman working in her kitchen. Tingle had already been the subject of a 1937 photograph by Evans and, in this later shot, Tingle stands in almost the exact same position. Christenberry's photograph can be seen as an important sequel. In 1937, Tingle's face is naked and unlined, her eyes look right back at the camera with an expression which is half curious/half indifferent. In Christenberry's later shot her stance is more posed, she stands stiffly not looking at the camera. Her face carries the weight of the 25 years that have passed and she seems more knowing about her own subjectivity.

At the core of the exhibition, however, are the colour photographs of the Alabama landscapes of Christenberry's childhood and memory. The images, haunting and eerily un-peopled, bring the vivid yet run down buildings of the state centre-stage. Dilapidation, poverty and abandonment run through Christenberry's visual journeys, rickety wooden buildings with panes of glass missing, road-side shacks still displaying their faded soda signs. Certain images are more hopeful, the bright-as-a button white painted Sprott Church with its two little towers looks cared for and loved, like a little cake. This church was a familiar site from Christenberry's childhood and is also a feature of one of the works in the 'Working from Memory' component of the exhibition in Madrid – where models made of some of the buildings from his youth and photographs have been made in the studio over many years. The building's  physical reality slips into abstraction in the models, their idiosyncrasies are lost and they become totemic playthings.

The exhibition finishes on one of Christenberry's most intriguing long-term projects, The Klan Room which is presented as an archive of memory's from the artist about the group. Over 300 photographs, drawings and objects including dolls, sculptures and rather strange neon crosses, are installed around the gallery spaces. Christenberry began this project in the early 1960's when he began taking secret pictures of the group as they attended Klan meetings in Tuscaloosa and Tennessee. He had already been making sculptures using visual elements of the Klan's activities (their robes/hoods etc) in an attempt, he says, to 'express my abhorrence (about the group)'. This project, for Christenberry, is an important element of the Deep South landscape and cannot be ignored. The Klan Room strikes at the dark heart of the landscape Christenberry has spent his life living in, working with and about and it reminds the viewer that the artists work is not just an ode or love-story about Alabama but something deeper, truer and altogether more turbulent.

William Christenberry runs from 25 Sep – 24 Nov 2013.

A full catalogue has been produced which documents each individual work included in the exhibition with texts by exhibition curator Yolanda Romero,  François Chevrier, Eduardo Cadava and Justo Navarro, among others

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AuthorSacha Waldron