MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
Back in the 1960s, artist William Christenberry took a road trip to Hale County in his native Alabama. It was August and hot as he traveled country roads cramped in a car without air conditioning.
Through his open windows, he smelled the red Alabama clay and surveyed the cotton fields and forests dotted with weather-beaten buildings. Christenberry wanted snapshots of these homes, churches, barns and country stores for paintings he was working on back north. When something caught his eye, the tall, lanky artist climbed out of his car holding a small gift he received as a child - a little Brownie camera.
Mr. WILLIAM CHRISTENBERRY (Artist): Santa Claus brought my sister and me tiny camera, nothing but a shutter release, no focusing device. And I'd go into that landscape - what I call a landscape of my childhood - and make these snapshots. Never did I dream that years later, the world of fine art photography would see something in these.
NORRIS: The 69-year-old Christenberry still makes that August pilgrimage to rural Alabama every year, though he's upgraded some of his camera equipment. Through his photos, paintings and sculptures, he documents how the places of his youth have changed.
A show of his art called Passing Time is at the Smithsonian in Washington and at the Aperture Gallery in New York. There's also a new book, simply called William Christenberry. On the cover, one of his signature photos - a small, red, A-frame building covered with brick, isolated except for surrounding pine trees.
Mr. CHRISTENBERRY: One day I just took this country road. It was paved but way out there. I didn't see anybody or anything for miles. And I came around a curve in the road and here was this building setting there so beautifully, so peacefully. And the first year I photographed it was 1974 with the Brownie -this is 1983 - and this has become sort of the definitive one.
Finally, I met someone who knew what the function of the building was way back. It was a one-room schoolhouse out in the middle of this national pine forest called the Talladega National Forest. Now there are people that still live in the forest - don't get me wrong. But this sat there alone just like, I think, the picture suggests. And I was just infatuated with it, proportionally.
The fact that they took this artificial brick siding, which you can buy in rolls, and stapled or tacked it up there. And somebody must have had a great sense of humor or was totally ignorant of what he or she was doing. Covered the front door and made it look like a brick door. And it can't be a brick door. But there are no windows on the sides or front, as you see, and not a door on the back either. And hopefully in a couple of weeks or so - if it's there - I will make my annual picture.
NORRIS: But sometimes the buildings you photograph do disappear, and I wonder what that's like for you. There's a series of pictures in the book. May I just open this up?
Mr. CHRISTENBERRY: Please. The one called the - you turned right to it - see the Bar-B-Q Inn. Now when I was a boy, this was Woods Radio and TV Repair.
NORRIS: That's the earliest picture, dated 1964.
Mr. CHRISTENBERRY: ‘64.
NORRIS: Now what do we see there in that picture in 1964?
Mr. CHRISTENBERRY: You see a jukebox out front. What do you call it? The old fashioned -
NORRIS: Oh, it almost looks like a - what is it? - a Wurlitzer.
Mr. CHRISTENBERRY: Yeah, it was a Wurlitzer. Well, by '71, it had become the Bar-B-Q Inn.
NORRIS: That's right. Bar-B-Q, I see that.
Mr. CHRISTENBERRY: Bar-B-Q. And it remained that way for many, many years. And then - what is the date on this? I don't have my -
NORRIS: This is 1983. The door is still open. It looks like it's - the Coca-Cola signs are still out front.
Mr. CHRISTENBERRY: Right.
NORRIS: It's been painted with - it's got some yellow paint on it.
Mr. CHRISTENBERRY: The chrome yellow, yes.
NORRIS: But then by 1989 -
Mr. CHRISTENBERRY: It had burned. It was a big gaping hole here where the firemen had to go through the brick wall to put out the fire. Then I get to this year, and they must have given up the idea of restoring it, and it's just a slab. Just a concrete slab. And I had an exhibition at the time. It just coincided with September 11th, terrible thing in New York. And a lot of people identified this slab with where, like where the World Trade Center - some people still do. It's that strong emotion.
NORRIS: Do you purposely avoid trying to get to know too much about the subject, the owners of the subject?
Mr. CHRISTENBERRY: I'm going to have to tell you another story to answer that question. A few years ago, I was photographing a country store near the Bar-B-Q Inn, and I came out from under the (unintelligible) where I'd been focusing, and there was a man that had just poof, just out of the blue. And he was dressed all in white - white starched short-sleeved shirt, white starched pants, white shoes, big wide-brimmed white hat. And he was just purple black skin that you see so often in Africa Americans down there. Beautiful skin.
And he said, you like that old building, son? I said, yes, sir, I sure do. He said, you ought to see my house. He said it's just down that road, about two miles. And he got in the car beside me, and I noticed then his left arm was missing from right underneath his short-sleeved shirt. No left arm.
He said, I lost this left arm in a sawmill accident, 1940-something. My inadequacy to respond just went all over me. I just felt limp. So we drove on down the road a little bit. And then he said, pull over on the shoulder of the road, pull right there, and he pointed across out the window, his window.
See that house? It was a flattop house made out of cinder block. That's my house. I built that with one arm. He said, you like to see it inside? I said, yes, sir. We went in the backdoor for some reason, and my heart really sank cause there was no floor. It was just red earth, an old beat up mattress over in the corner, a couple of uncomfortable looking chairs.
And we just chatted for a few minutes. And I said, sir, do you mind if I photograph your house? Oh, I'd be so proud. I'd be so pleased. So I made the picture and I thanked him profusely. And I said, I'll see you the next time I come, but it probably won't be until next summer. He said, fine, and I want to see the picture. I said, I know, I want you to have one.
And the next year I make that annual trek and parked on the same shoulder of the road. Got out of the car, walked down towards the back, and as I walked down the road, this neighbor next door to him comes rushing across his yard. And he said, you're looking for Mr. So-and-So? I said, yes, sir. He died. He froze to death last winter.
And I'm glad I made the picture now, but I couldn't have made the picture afterwards. You know what I mean? Because to this day - for years I couldn't tell this story in public, because I couldn't, really couldn't control my feelings.
But what I really feel very strongly about - and I hope it reflects in my work, in all aspects of my work - is the human touch, the humanness of things. The positive and sometimes the negative and sometimes the sad.
NORRIS: William Christenberry, it's been a pleasure to talk to you. Safe travel to you when you head down to Alabama.
Mr. CHRISTENBERRY: Thank you so much. I really enjoyed talking with you.
NORRIS: Now come back and talk to us again.
Mr. CHRISTENBERRY: I'd be happy to.
NORRIS: Artist William Christenberry. His book is called William Christenberry. Photos of some of his buildings we talked about and more of his stories are at NPR.org.