Arts

In Hale County, Alabama, Two Visions of Place

Hale County, Ala., holds a special position in American visual culture. This is where Walker Evans made his photographs of white sharecropper families for “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” with James Agee’s text, a core document of Depression-era poverty.

It is where William Christenberry, who grew up in nearby Tuscaloosa with roots in the county, returned each summer for four decades, beginning in the 1960s, making quiet images of desolate buildings in landscape that have become photography canon.

RaMell Ross is Hale County’s latest visual chronicler and, as he puts it, “liberated documentarian.” He moved to Greensboro, Ala., in 2009 and lived there continuously for three years, teaching in a G.E.D. program, coaching basketball and photographing. Though now a professor at Brown University, he has made the county a long-term home and the fulcrum of his art projects.

Ross’s 2018 essay film, “Hale County This Morning, This Evening,” was nominated for an Academy Award. Its patient pace and poetic tone, as it follows events, mundane and poignant, in the lives of a few Black families in the county, also infuse the photographs he has made there.

Ross, 40, holds Christenberry, who died in 2016, as a major influence, so it was logical to place their work in conversation, as the exhibition “Desire Paths,” now at Pace Gallery in Chelsea, has done.

Ross’s own photographs often carry an air of mystery but in fact arise from prosaic daily life. “Man,” in which a young boy is draped on the tire in the wheel-well of a giant truck, arose from a day relaxing in a friend’s yard. “Koo-See Mountain” shows another friend readying to install a length of pipe on the property Ross bought, yet reads like a magic pastoral.

Ross points out in a conversation how the vast bulk of circulating images of the South was made by white photographers. But to “desegregate Southern photography,” as he puts it, is not just to be Black and making images today. It’s a question of method, he said — being fully, patiently integrated in people’s lives.

This is not just a photography show, however. It includes sculpture by both artists — and installations that attest, in different registers, to a kind of psychological unease in each artist’s work, touching on racial history and violence in blunt ways.

William Christenberry, “Church, Sprott, Alabama,” 1981.Credit…via the Estate of William Christenberry and Pace Gallery
RaMell Ross, “Sleepy Church,” 2014.Credit…via RaMell Ross

A curtained-off room is filled with Christenberry’s “Klan Tableau” — an aggregation of his drawings of hooded heads and diorama-like scenes of dolls, in hand-stitched robes and hoods. He added to the tableau for years, even restarting from scratch when it was stolen from his studio in 1979. It has been exhibited before, but infrequently.

Christenberry traced his fixation to a silent face-off with a hooded Klansman in a Tuscaloosa courthouse in 1960. In his tableau he wrought violence on some dolls, piercing them with pins or coating them in hot oil — but the project remains cryptic, even to his wife, Sandra Deane Christenberry, and his children, who have run his estate since his death.

Any depiction of Klan imagery is potentially volatile. But Ross said he was excited to resurface the tableau. He has paired it with his own endurance project, “Return to Origin,” where he had himself shipped in a crate, loaded on a trailer, from Providence, R.I., to Hale County in 2021 — a nod to Henry “Box” Brown, who had himself mailed from enslavement in Virginia to freedom in Philadelphia in 1849. Ross’s box is in the exhibition, along with video from his journey.

Installation detailing RaMell Ross’s symbolic reverse migration back to the South, “Return to Origin,” 2021. He shipped himself in a crate to Hale County from Providence, R.I.Credit…via RaMell Ross
During William Christenberry’s childhood in Hale County, he had run-ins with the Klan that pervaded his work. His “Klan Tableau” (1962–2007) was assembled over years, and restarted from scratch when it was stolen from his studio in 1979.Credit…via the Estate of William Christenberry and Pace Gallery

Before the exhibition opened, Ross and Sandra Christenberry discussed Hale County, photography of the South, and the value of putting forward the “Klan Tableau” and “Return to Origin” in today’s climate. Lauren Panzo, a Pace vice president who has long worked with the Christenberrys, and Jumoke McDuffie-Thurmond, a poet who is the gallery’s manager of culture and equity, joined the conversation, which has been condensed and edited for clarity.

RaMell, what made Hale County such fertile terrain?

RAMELL ROSS If you live in Washington, D.C., as I did, and then you go to Greensboro [Ala.] and spend a long period, you get a sense for how genuinely slow the time is. That was attractive to me, as a person who loves being still and staring at things. I was like, I’ll stay here, and maybe I can take photos.

How did the presence of Walker Evans and William Christenberry manifest itself there?

ROSS They’re so influential. They propagated this way of viewing the South, of putting things in a very formal frame, having geometric structures — barns, houses — look the way that they do. It’s profound to realize that what you think you’re doing is actually in the same groove as someone in the past. It took me three years to make a photograph I was happy with, that felt like mine.

RaMell Ross and Sandra Deane Christenberry in conversation at Pace Gallery. On the wall, William Christenberry’s “5 Cent, Demopolis, Alabama,” 1978.Credit…Ike Edeani for The New York Times

What is Christenberry’s influence on your photographs, such as “Yellow” or “Caspera,” in which a young girl in a field has draped herself in a photographer’s cloth, the kind you use when making your large-format images.

ROSS He’s interested in the present, the thing in front of you — the thing itself, phenomenologically. I naturally applied that honing of everything into the moment, the stillness that you see. The moments are pauses in a flow, a larger cultural time, a larger conception of Blackness that forces you to merge your attention with the moment when the image was taken and the space that it’s in.

But while he photographs landscapes, you focus on people — Black people, Black life.

ROSS The way his landscapes exist to me, they are enormous castles for the American visual constitution, how America is unconsciously trained to look at itself. I do see people in his images, outside the frame. They’re not empty. But for my part, I move toward people because I’m interested in using photography not to prove humanity, but to prove or infer complexity; to infer narratives, sort of restoring the way in which Black people have lost control over their narratives and have always been consumed by other peoples’ interpretations.

William Christenberry, “Palmist Building,” 1961-1988. In these 20 pigment prints, the photographer returned to a Hale County roadside building that he shot year after year as it decayed. Credit…via the Estate of William Christenberry and Pace Gallery
RaMell Ross, “Koo-See Mountain,” 2019.Credit…via RaMell Ross

You’ve written that Christenberry “does not leverage his social status to directly represent minority communities.” In other words, he does not use his race and privilege as license to gawk. It sounds like you find that refreshing.

ROSS There’s no white person that I know that would not be thrilled to go photograph a Black person on a porch in the South. And like, get really close to their hands. And be like, “These people restored me.” All the really easy modes of engaging with people through the camera. It’s always been white people going to the South, photographing white and Black people, then leaving. So it’s astounding to me that someone would have the restraint to not photograph what they know people would love. Christenberry’s images are not easily read. They look like nothing is happening, but they’re dense.

When you started making sculptural pieces like “Earth, Dirt, Soil, Land; Brown Flag Case,” incorporating Alabama soil, was that in the knowledge that Christenberry had done this?

ROSS I learned how Christenberry once put a pile of red Hale County dirt in a show. There’s no gesture that’s more interesting to me than that in terms of thinking about what people want to carry as home. One could argue that the African American experience in the U.S., and the South is foreclosed in that sense because of the inequality of land ownership. So yes, it was because of Bill.

RaMell Ross, “Earth, Dirt, Soil, Land; Brown Flag Case,” 2021. Credit…via RaMell Ross; Photo by Sesthasak Boonchai

SANDRA DEANE CHRISTENBERRY He loved that red soil in particular. He used it in a lot of sculptures, primarily in the bases. He would bring home boxes and boxes of red earth, and he had a screen that he made, so he would take it out in the back yard and sift it.

RaMell, what made you package and ship yourself in a crate? It feels dangerous.

ROSS Being in the South, in Hale County now, and seeing the accepted division of Black and white — like, “Things were so bad in the past that we’re cool with how it is now” — and imagining how we deal with the good ol’ boys, with the lack of property ownership, to me there needs to be a reverse migration to disturb this inertia. People are moving back. And Henry “Box” Brown was the epitome of ingenuity to get out of the South, so why not use the same, almost time-travel, way to return?

He had to smuggle himself out, though. Why travel, even symbolically, the same way?

Installation of “Return to Origin” at Pace shows text the artist wrote during his 59-hour journey. It is a deliberately absurdist project called “Black Dictionary” in which he copies entries from a child’s dictionary, placing the word ‘Black’ in front of each entry.Credit…via RaMell Ross; Photo by Sesthasak Boonchai

ROSS Now we get to make the choice. We get to do it in Teslas. I wanted to imply that there was risk, and to put myself at risk. So for me it was a personal thing: This is how much it matters. And I hope it’s conceptually rich for others.

JUMOKE MCDUFFIE-THURMOND The project is like an extension of ancestral recall. Thinking about Henry “Box” Brown’s methodology, the box as a vehicle for him to get closer to actualizing his own freedom on his own terms. And I think in the kind of migration that we’re seeing now to the South, among Black folks, there is an aspect of fugitivity. For example, to escape the increasing rent prices in cities.

Lauren, why resurface Christenberry’s “Klan Tableau” now, in the current cultural climate and in the wake of the controversy, for instance, about how to show Philip Guston’s Klan-themed paintings?

LAUREN PANZO We want to have those discussions, and this is a place where we can do it and are supported to do it. It will provoke discussion.

RaMell Ross, “Caspera,” 2019.Credit…via RaMell Ross

RaMell, when Pace suggested showing the “Klan Tableau,” you were enthusiastic. Why?

ROSS Because I think the power of the Klan is in our non-engagement, in the way in which we push them to a place of distant evil, not to a place of miniaturized dolls. Christenberry lets us engage the symbol, and shows how the Klan symbology is embedded across our culture. The first thing I did in the room, I took off one of the hoods. There was some soft doll underneath. I felt powerful when I did that. You can’t do that in the actual show, but it still happens conceptually when you go in.

Sandy, when Bill went to observe several Klan rallies in 1966, did you worry?

CHRISTENBERRY I don’t even remember if he told me he was going! I was raised in Michigan; I wasn’t that familiar with the South until Bill and I started going back and forth between Memphis and Tuscaloosa. Over the years I became more knowledgeable about how he felt. But it wasn’t something we talked about much. Bill made his work, and I would not presume to make suggestions.

The “Klan Tableau” was a personal, obsessive project but a number of people were involved. I read that Rosa Eggleston, wife of the photographer William Eggleston, sewed some of the first robes and hoods for the dolls.

Detail from William Christenberry’s “Klan Tableau” at Pace Gallery. For RaMell Ross, there is value in confronting the symbolism of the Klan, rather than “push them to a place of distant evil.”Credit…Ike Edeani for The New York Times

CHRISTENBERRY Yes, there were lots of people involved in it. After the original tableau was stolen from the studio, a friend of ours named Julien Hohenberg in Memphis was behind the funds for Bill to start making it all over again.

The theft was never solved. Were you worried that it was a kind of warning?

CHRISTENBERRY All kinds of worries went through my head. But all these years nothing has happened, other than a Klansman leaving a calling card on a sculpture in a show. That happened in Philadelphia.

What do you hope that the show achieves?

CHRISTENBERRY It is that people will finally look at Bill’s body of work as a whole. It all together expresses his love and dismay with where he was raised. I also wish that you all had the chance to meet.

ROSS Well, we’re meeting in another way! For me, it may be too ambitious a desire but I hope it can recast Southern photography as something more than this formal pursuit.


William Christenberry and RaMell Ross: Desire Paths

Through Feb. 25, Pace Gallery, 510 West 25th Street, Manhattan, 212 421-3292; pacegallery.com.

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