Plain Dealer reporter
The dilapidated Alabama landscape the rental car flashed past fascinated Ben Hauser.
Many of the rundown warehouses, storefronts or shacks could have made fine pictures. Only this was no leisurely photographic expedition. The 18-year-old from Shaker Heights was on a quest.
His dad, Michael Hauser, was driving, but even with his encouragement, this remained an enormous undertaking for the high school senior with disheveled hair and the whiskerless face of a boy.
He was trying, on this October day last year, to follow in the footsteps of William Christenberry, who had followed in the footsteps of Walker Evans. Both were now celebrated American artists. But the path of the great ones was proving difficult to find.
About noon, Ben and his dad quit the search to eat lunch. They showed the waitress a book of Christenberry’s photographs.
She didn’t recognize the structures but returned with the cook. Soon, several men crowded around the table saying they had seen this building and that. One man even offered directions.
Now, this was exciting. If only Ben could complete this photo project and the prints looked good enough, he would seek out Christenberry and meet him face to face. He had studied the man’s work so closely that, in a way, he already felt like he knew him.
“It’s really weird to think you can meet someone like that,” Ben said. “It’s sort of like meeting with the older generation, looking for direction and guidance.”
Change over time
Ben had lacked such direction three years earlier, in the fall of 2000. He was not an athlete or thespian and had not immediately found his niche at University School. Then he took a photography class as a sophomore.
In one of his early assignments, several Diet Coke cans excluded a dented Pepsi can from a game of soccer.
Photography teacher Chris Davis saw an unexpected degree of sophistication in this and Ben’s other projects. Trendy, post-modernist photographers constructed comparable scenes, designed to comment on contemporary society. But for some reason, it seemed like Ben had avoided interacting with people. That was OK. Photographers could do great work alone, and it almost required a solitary spirit to spend hour after hour in the darkroom. That was exactly what Ben did. Sometimes the hours even turned into days.
“I don’t think a lot of kids can understand why you would spend all day doing it. I can spend a whole day on a print, and then I’ll do it again. I don’t see it as a time issue, I see it as just a final product,” Ben said.
He signed up for another photo class, and then another. His interest shifted to neglected buildings and objects. These images reminded Davis of Christenberry’s work, and he loaned his student some photo books.
Maybe it was nostalgia for a simpler time, maybe it was nature reclaiming man-made structures, maybe it was seeing change over time. Ben wasn’t sure what captivated him, but captivated he was.
To take sharper images, he bought a Rolleiflex. The antique used larger film than 35 millimeter cameras, giving pictures greater definition. He was moving back in time rather than embracing the digital age. He also learned to print photographs in color, a technical challenge that even many college students do not master.
He eventually wrote Christenberry a letter, enclosing his best prints. They began corresponding, and Christenberry commented that it was hard to believe a high school kid could make such high-quality color prints, but, if they were in fact the work of a teenager, he was impressed.
Ben learned that during the 1960s, when Christenberry had been in his 20s, the man had photographed some of the same subjects as a previous famous photographer, Walker Evans, who had made pictures of people and communities in Alabama hit hard by the Great Depression. Ben wanted to replicate Christenberry’s journey.
A crisp focus
In October, a Strnad Fellowship Grant from school allowed him and his father to take that trip. After talking with the locals, they were driving back down a street in this neglected part of Greensboro, Ala., when Ben saw something familiar. His dad stopped the car.
The middle section of the building resembled the picture on page 131 of Christenberry’s book: “Southern Photographs.” The five metal pipes protruding from the wall matched. Ben realized this was the one, the cotton gin. He lugged the medium-print camera, tripod and light meter into the overgrown lot behind the unkempt structure. He glanced into the Rolleiflex’s viewfinder, moved the camera, peeked again through the viewfinder, moved a little more, and there it was – almost exactly the same view as in Christenberry’s timeless shot. He figured he must be standing within 10 feet of where the artist had stood so many years ago.
But it wasn’t the same view. Not exactly. Saplings and weeds had taken over the unused lot. Vines had climbed the brick wall. This was what he was looking for: change over time.
Ben turned the focusing knob until everything in the frame appeared sharp and crisply edged.
It seemed almost as if this moment should not exist, as if the building should not exist, as if it shouldn’t be possible for anyone except maybe a professional artist to track down and emulate the work of a master. But here Ben was, a high school kid.
Maybe his age didn’t matter. He could retrace the path of a master. All it took was passion and initiative. He had both.
“A lot of times people might have ideas but they’re too afraid to carry them out,” Ben said. “I don’t know if they’re afraid of failure or what, but I did it.”
Satisfied with his setup, he snapped the photo.
The ultimate journey
Over the next few days, he tracked down several other scenes Christenberry had photographed, including two that Evans had photographed as well.
One of these pictures – of a rusty, metal-sided building – and others he took in a Christenberry-like style won prizes last winter at Cuyahoga County’s Regional Scholastic Art Awards.
They turned out good enough that, in the spring, he traveled to the nation’s capital and met Christenberry in his studio. The man could have humored Ben for an hour, then politely excused himself. Instead, they looked at and discussed photography for nearly four hours.
Ben was praised at graduation in June. He obviously had grown out of his shell and found a group of friends. He plans to continue studying photography this fall at Ohio University.
When people ask about the pictures from Alabama, nothing he says can give them the experience of that journey. For that, they have to take their own.