Life’s Little Surprises

Trooper John Christenberry in 1978

Ira Block and Wiliam Christenberry 2010

There is a strange synergy in the photo world. Last week I received an e-mail from Aperture Gallery announcing a book signing by the well known photographer and artist William Christenberry. His book, Kodachromes is a collection of photos shot in Hale County, Alabama between 1964–2007, on 35mm Kodachrome film. Although I was familiar with his work, his name struck another chord with me. Back in 1978 when I first started working for the National Geographic, I did a book called Backroads America. My friend Tom O’Neill was the writer and our assignment was to travel around the United States and document the lesser known parts of the nation. While I was in Alabama, I spent a couple of days photographing a state trooper, John Christenberry. John mentioned that he had a brother who was a photographer and I said I didn’t know of him. I was just starting my photographic career and the only photographers I was familiar with were other photojournalists.
It would be years later that I would learn about William Christenberry and his incredible body of work in the South. I admired the simplicity and stark reality of his images. His rural landscapes have a timeless quality that draw the viewer in. It took a while but I finally realized that William was the brother of Trooper John Christenberry.
When I received Aperture’s e-mail, I knew I had to meet William. Last night I wandered over to the Aperture Gallery in New York City, a few blocks from where I live. Not exactly sure of what I would say, I approached the desk where William Christenberry was signing his books. I introduced myself and handed him a copy of my book, Backroads America.
At first he was surprised (remember, this was his book signing event) and then I think he was really touched when I showed him the photo essay on his brother, who I learned is now retired and living in Texas. I asked if they spoke with each other and William said every week this time of year, usually to discuss the University of Alabama-Auburn football rivalry. It’s true that some things never change. Sometimes life works like that. A photo can lead to unexpected meetings, consequences or even life changing events. And now, my images of Trooper John Christenberry led me to meet the brother he had spoken of 32 years ago. It felt good.


5 thoughts on “Life’s Little Surprises

  1. Glenn,good to hear from you.Keeping out of trouble down on the bottom of the world?I have a few scans from the book on my site.will work on some more this coming year.would really like to find the time to retrace my route after all these years, and find some of the people. Ira

  2. Hi,

    It is the first time I am reading your blog, very interesting story you told about that photo. The interesting thing for me is that backroads america resembles the project that I defined for myself now, backyards edmonton. The thing is I came from Tehran to Edmonton in Canada, from a place in which you do not need to find a subject, they will find you, and in here I do not have a car and I am just walking around and taking photos of interesting things in people’s backyards. I am sure someday, some of these photos will have the same story.


  3. Ira,

    There is serendipity at work here. I pulled up your website today out of the blue, and while perusing it found your Blog post concerning “Backroads America.” I was a high school student — very interested in photography — when you and Tom came down to Texas to do a piece for that book on my family’s ranch. I suppose I followed you around quite a bit, no doubt asking numerous questions, and eventually you gave me a John Hedgecoe book. That book was the source of endless inspiration and is still one of my treasured possessions. Many, many thanks.


    Michael Scott

  4. Hello Ira, my name is Ben and I happen to be really good friends with Chris, John Christenberry’s son. I just thought I would write this comment on here and say it’s a small world. It is amazing how things like that occur in life.

    Good luck with your future endeavors.

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