When I was a teenager I owned a paperback by Hanswilhelm Haefs entitled Handbuch des Nutzlosen Wissens, or Manual of Useless Knowledge, a book that often led to a lighthearted debate with my father who questioned its purpose and my persisting interest in it. Why, for instance, did I need to know that fifty percent of all pianos are out of tune, that crickets listen with their knees or that men fall out of bed more often than women ? Moreover, the book was heavily criticised: its readers found many of Haefs’ “facts” to be incomplete, or simply inaccurate. One reader accused the author of imparting “gefährliches Halbwissen”: dangerous, superficial knowledge. Looking back, I could never quite put my finger on what it was that fascinated about Haefs’ bizarre compendium. I was certainly interested in my father’s attitude towards the book, which went beyond mere disinterest: he seemed to actively resist it. While I certainly disagreed with his idea that some things are not “worth” knowing or thinking about I found it equally intriguing, as it meant that there was other “knowledge” worth thinking about, “useful” knowledge. What was it? Who had thought about, or of it? Finally, who had decided if and where this knowledge would be included?
It is ten years ago this month that I first encountered conceptual photography. In the summer of 2006 I was interning at a small artist-owned gallery in Washington D.C. and spent most days off exploring the capital. The marbled halls of its museums and air-conditioned galleries offered a welcome alternative to the unforgiving midday sun, and on what turned out to be the hottest day of the summer I found myself in one of many galleries of the Smithsonian Institution. The American Art Museum had been hosting an exhibition entitled Passing Time: The Art of William Christenberry, which featured paintings, sculptures and over one hundred and thirty photographs by the artist from the Southern United States. I remember finding Christenberry’s rather personal record of Alabama’s regional heritage moving, particularly his photographs of weathered buildings in Hale and Tuscaloosa County. I had never experienced photography in this way; despite his analytical, objective approach Christenberry’s photographs seemed to convey something far more profound than the examples of “fine art” photography I was familiar with at the time, something which, to this day, has remained ineffable.
For years to come I would return to Green Warehouse, Newbern, a series of color photographs taken by the artist over a period of thirty-two years. The images, which depict a warehouse constructed from weathered, corrugated iron, offer the viewer a variety of vantage points; some provide a full-frontal view of the warehouse while others are taken from a distance, shifting the focus from the unwavering shed to the surrounding rural landscape. A number of images are details of the buildings structural elements, e.g. its central pitched roof and its wooden door, supported by a set of rusted metal hinges. Despite the series’ rather mundane content, I remember, as I moved from from one photograph to the next, being absorbed by it. What exactly was it I found so utterly captivating about Christenberry’s seemingly banal subject matter, particularly his small-scale photographs which may as well have been commissioned by the Tuscaloosa County Archives?