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William Christenberry, Palmist Building (Summer), Havana Junction, Alabama, 1980, pigment print, 26-5/8" × 34-1/8" (67.6 cm × 86.7 cm), image, 32" × 40" (81.3 cm × 101.6 cm), paper © The Estate of William Christenberry

Photography in Focus

William Christenberry

Palmist Building (Summer), Havana Junction, Alabama

By Jessica Mostow, Associate Director
Jul 30, 2020

This is and always will be where my heart is. It is what I care about. Everything I want to say through my work comes out of my feelings about that place—its positive aspects and its negative aspects.

William Christenberry

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William Christenberry, Side of Palmist Building, Havana Junction, Alabama, 1961, gelatin silver Brownie print, 3-3/8" x 6-1/8" (8.6 cm x 15.6 cm) image, 8" x 10" (20.3 cm x 25.4 cm), paper © The Estate of William Christenberry

For over 50 years, Alabama native William Christenberry made annual trips to photograph the small corner of the rural South where he grew up. Fascinated with the passage of time, year after year he returned to the same sites, recording their transformation—a testament to his reverence for the beauty in age. His documentation of the changing landscape and vernacular architecture of the region serves as both a visual narrative of place and time, as well as a means of preservation.

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William Christenberry, Side of Palmist Building, Havana Junction, Alabama, 1973, pigment print, 6-5/8" × 10-1/8" (16.8 cm × 25.7 cm), image, 11" × 14" (27.9 cm × 35.6 cm), paper © The Estate of William Christenberry

The structure within Christenberry’s oeuvre known as the Palmist Building has always intrigued me. Once a general store run by his great-uncle, and later on briefly let out to a family of gypsies, Christenberry described the building as having “been in [his] consciousness most of [his] life, as far back as [he] can remember.” The first time he looked at it with a camera, however, wasn’t until 1961—by then abandoned and in disrepair, a sign that read “Palmist” set upside down in a broken window to guard against the elements. For more than 25 years Christenberry visited this site, chronicling its gradual return to the earth, until finally, on a trip in 1988, the building had disappeared entirely.

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William Christenberry, Site of Palmist Building, Havana Junction, Alabama, 1988, pigment print, image, 18-1/4" × 23" (46.4 cm × 58.4 cm), image, 20" × 24" (50.8 cm × 61 cm), paper © The Estate of William Christenberry

By 1980, when Palmist Building (Summer), Havana Junction, Alabama was taken, a dense overgrowth of vegetation had almost completely engulfed the building, verdant summer foliage partially obscuring it from view. The sign can still be seen peeking out, a lingering nod to the building’s last tenants, inviting the viewer to consider the structure’s history and the life that passed through its walls.

My own roots firmly planted in New York, I have few personal ties to the South, but still I’ve always been drawn to these photographs. To see Hale County through Christenberry’s eyes is to feel the connection he had to his home, and to be reminded of the beauty in belonging to a place that you love.

Essays — Photography in Focus: William Christenberry, Jul 30, 2020