A profile from the Oxford American’s 25th issue, 1999.
Christenberry is not simply a visual artist who reveres writers, especially Southern ones, his artistic vocabulary is directly shaped by them. His largest theme, like that of many novelists, is time, and he has a poet’s sureness of imagery and tone. He is perhaps the South’s most literary artist.
5 A.M. I wake up at home in Hampshire County and start driving in the still, quiet morning. I’m heading toward Fayette County in my faded red pickup with a loud, broken exhaust pipe. To the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel, it’s a four-hour drive, a pile of cassette tapes in my passenger seat, and a lot of coffee and cigarettes. My first day is scouting, finding the points on the map, seeking out the light.
Photographs from the Summer 2014 issue.
Drawing from the famous nineteenth century portraits made by Doris Ulmann, Lisa Elmaleh’s project American Folk documents the contemporary development of traditional arts throughout the Appalachian Mountains.
It’s a brisk February afternoon in Lexington, Kentucky, and Louis Zoeller Bickett II and I are sitting in his office, which is lined with 500 binders. A few shelves of author-signed books, all of them tagged and indexed, stand in the room behind me. Our coffee mugs are not tagged, but the small Windsor chair I’m sitting in is.
The exhibition is a sort of Faulknerian stream-of-consciousness narrative, moving seamlessly from subject to subject. Tattered orange and red dishtowels on a clothesline, each piece of cloth shot through with holes; a line of railway freight cars shrouded in the evening light of the Mississippi Delta; thin shadows cast on brown cinderblocks below a periwinkle-blue sky. The bohemian and gothic Souths collide in Eggleston’s photographs—his bright colors and distinct perspectives imbue rusting signs and aging buildings with a spiritual, emotional darkness that speaks to a decaying world of an older South fading into suburbia and industrial development.
Atget, Modotti, Weston, Stieglitz, Avedon, Karsh, Brassaï, Bresson, Ulmann. Jim would hand the books to me with no explanation, no bias of who was who and why and what the world already thought of the work. He told me only to put paper clips on the pages holding photographs that “found something in me.”
“No one can tell you why Memphis is as magical as it really is,” said artist and washboard player Jimmy Crosthwait when I interviewed him for The Blues Society, my documentary film-in-progress about the Memphis Country Blues Festivals of the late 1960s. He wasn’t talking only about the magic of a beautiful sunset, a joint, and the sound of the blues, all of which were in profound profusion at the festivals. He was remembering something more elemental, what one of the organizers, the irrepressible Randall Lyon, called the eroico furore, or poetic fury: “It was beautiful to be involved with people who had this heroic enthusiasm for what they were doing.” The Memphis Country Blues Festivals, held yearly from 1966 to 1969, changed the way Memphians—and Americans—think about the blues, and they couldn’t have happened anywhere else.