William Christenberry, whose intimate photographs of crumbling rural buildings and almost violently verdant landscape of his native Alabama made him one of the most respected and influential artists of the modern South, died Nov. 28 at a nursing home in Washington. He was 80.
The cause was complications from Alzheimer’s disease, said a daughter, Kate Christenberry.
Mr. Christenberry — the “t” in his name is silent — began his career as a painter and for decades taught painting and drawing at Washington’s Corcoran School of the Arts and Design. The small photographs for which he became renowned evoke a vanishing world populated almost solely by dilapidated buildings, rusting automobiles, advertising signs, graves and vegetation growing out of control.
Taken with a Kodak Brownie camera, the 3-by-5-inch images were an accidental art form, intended as color guides that Mr. Christenberry taped next to the easel while he worked on his expressionistic paintings. In 1960, he discovered “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” the 1941 book of photographs by Walker Evans and with a poetic text by James Agee.
The now-classic book grew out of a trip Evans and Agee made to Hale County, Ala., for Fortune magazine in 1936, the year Mr. Christenberry was born. Mr. Christenberry spent every summer of his childhood in Hale County, where both sets of his grandparents had farms. His family knew many of the people shown in Evans’s photographs.
“Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” became Mr. Christenberry’s artistic lodestar, and the words of Agee and other Southern writers, such as William Faulkner and Eudora Welty, strongly shaped his artistic sensibility. He became friends with Evans, whose stark images of weathered buildings and haggard farm families were a lasting visual influence.
Most photographers of the time, Evans included, worked in black-and-white, but Mr. Christenberry came to see his simple color snapshots as a distinct art form, even though he knew little about the technical aspects of photography. (He took his film to a drugstore to be developed.)
Evans encouraged Mr. Christenberry to continue using his Kodak Brownie, almost a toy in the world of serious photography.
“Young man,” Evans told him, “you know exactly where to stand with that little camera.”
He began to exhibit his photographs in the 1970s and later began to use an 8-by-10 view camera to create larger images, but the essence of his work never changed.
“I don’t want my work to be thought of as maudlin or overly sentimental. It’s not,” Mr. Christenberry said in a 2005 interview with photography historian Robert Hirsch. “It’s a love affair — a lifetime of involvement with a place. The place is my muse.”
In his 2013 book “The Storied South,” William R. Ferris, a scholar of Southern culture and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, named Mr. Christenberry one of the three most important photographers of the South, along with Evans and William Eggleston.
“What Faulkner has done in his fiction, Christenberry has done in his photography,” Ferris wrote. “He has such a feel for what Eudora Welty called ‘the sense of place.’ ”
Along with his photography, Mr. Christenberry continued to paint, and he also made collages and small models of real and imagined architectural structures that he called “dream buildings.” He also created and rarely exhibited a “Klan room” tableau, using dozens of G.I. Joe dolls outfitted in the white robes of the Ku Klux Klan, with an assortment of disturbing images of violence, including coffins and guns.
“I hold the position that there are times when an artist must examine and reveal secret brutality,” Mr. Christenberry told The Washington Post in 1997.
By temperament, however, Mr. Christenberry was placid and contemplative. He returned year after year to Hale County, even taking Evans with him in 1973, two years before the elder photographer’s death. Every summer, Mr. Christenberry wandered the Alabama countryside, taking pictures of lonely places that dripped with the essence of the South, even though they never showed a human being.
“They are not self-portraits,” he said in 1983. “But they’re everything I know.”
William Andrew Christenberry Jr. was born Nov. 5, 1936, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. His father sold insurance and dairy products.
In 1944, Mr. Christenberry and his sister received a joint Christmas gift: the Brownie camera that he used throughout his life. He studied painting at the University of Alabama, graduating in 1958 and receiving a master’s degree in 1959.
One of his teachers, painter Melville Price, told him that he had to leave Alabama, at least for a while, in order to have a wider vision of the world. In 1961, Mr. Christenberry moved to New York, where he held eight jobs in a little more than a year.
He overcame his shyness to introduce himself to Evans, who helped find him a job in the photo archives at Time-Life publications. From 1962 to 1968, Mr. Christenberry taught at what is now the University of Memphis, where he and Eggleston became close friends. Eggleston began photographing in color after seeing Mr. Christenberry’s work.
He came to Washington in 1968 to teach at the Corcoran School, retiring in 2008.
Throughout the 1980s, Mr. Christenberry used a large-format camera, but in later years he returned to his Brownie. His works were often featured in books and are in the collections of the Corcoran Gallery (now part of the National Gallery of Art), the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Whitney Museum of Art and many other museums. A new exhibition will open Dec. 9 at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore.
Survivors include his wife of 49 years, Sandra Deane Christenberry of Washington; three children, Emlyn Christenberry Ward of Alexandria, Va., and William Andrew Christenberry III, who goes by Andrew, and Kate Christenberry, both of Washington; a brother; and five grandchildren.
Mr. Christenberry’s influence can be felt not just among visual artists but through the work of writers and musicians who summon the abiding spirit of history and landscape in the South.
“Whenever someone asks why I always photograph in Alabama,” Mr. Christenberry told photography critic Andy Grundberg in 2001, “I have to answer that, yes, I know there are other places, but Alabama is where my heart is.”