In the early 1970s soon after we moved into our Macomb Street house in DC, I met a neighbor named Bill Christenberry. We soon discovered we had a shared interest in photography. At the time I was heavy into black and white photography in the Henri Cartier-Bresson and “Family of Man” genre. I had a Pentax SLR camera and a darkroom where I did my own printing. Photography was a bit of an obsession.
After telling him all about my great photography equipment and how serious I was, Bill replied, in his quiet and modest way, that he took all his photos with a Kodak Brownie Hawkeye box camera and sent his film for developing and printing to the local drug store. Clearly a lightweight, I remember thinking smugly. What did he do with the photos when he got them back, I remember asking, to which he replied, “Oh, I mount some of the good ones and send them off.”
When I told the story to another neighbor a few days later, the neighbor responded, “And do you know where he sends them off to? Art galleries in New York and London and the Museum of Modern Art! That’s where.”
Last week Embry and I attended his memorial service at the Cochran Museum where he taught painting and photography for over forty years and where over 500 people had gathered to honor and remember him. Someone commented that every art critic in Washington was there along with a bunch from New York. One person I talked to said she was responsible for arranging one of his exhibitions in London. As several of the speakers pointed out, Bill Christenberry, along with Walker Evans and Bill Eggleston, was one of the great American photographers of the Twentieth Century. His extraordinary photographs are mainly of his beloved Hale County, Alabama—and mainly old, often abandoned buildings. As people spoke, some of his best photos appeared on a screen behind the speaker. The effect was stunning.
I could not help thinking how often we confuse photography equipment with the eye of the person who clicks the camera. That is what great photography always has been about and always will be.
As many of you blog readers may know, I am planning a “50 Year Retrospective” of my photography and have asked my brother-in-law, Mike Martin, to exhibit some of his drawings as well. Mike is a poet and writer along with being a visual artist. He is the real artist in the family. I have sent out “save the date” emails only to local folks since I do not want anyone to feel they should have to come a great distance to see the exhibit. But, of course, everyone and anyone, is welcome. (June 24 opening in the Katzen Arts Center at AU, 5-7, exhibit up through August 5).
But I also have to say that I feel a bit like an imposter. Thinking of Bill Christenberry—and we have other famous artist friends like Dickson Carroll—how pretentious can I be to think that my photographs deserve to be in an exhibit? The answer to that question–from someone who is now 75 –is, quite simply, that does not matter. Taking photographs over the years has been a part of who I am—and at my age, it is now or never. My photography is what it is, and for better or worse, I am proud of it—fully understanding that it does not begin to match up with the photographs taken by some who have shot photos with Brownie Hawkeye cameras and sent their film for processing and printing at local drug stores.