Dorothea Lange, best known for capturing a grievous esprit de corps in her Depression-era subjects, once wrote that documentary photography was “pre-eminently suited to build a record of social change.”
Fellow documentary photographer Rob Amberg — best known for chronicling the I-26 corridor’s grim advance through rural Madison County — has built such a record with his latest work, the just-published collection Sodom Laurel Album (University of North Carolina Press). Amberg’s book unveils a section of the county currently shadowed by the I-26 project.
But his subjects here embody a more elusive social shift than that conferred by the encroaching highway.
Instead of rude steel and gouged land, these photos expose a community’s development through the ebbing forms of its citizenry, caught between the late 1970s and the early ’90s.
A 29-year resident of Madison County, Amberg — originally from Washington, D.C. — arrived in the mountains in ’73, seeking a break from urban pressures. “Most of my life to that point had been spent figuring out where I didn’t want to live and the sort of things I didn’t want to do,” he notes in the book’s preface.
But the people he met in the county’s remote Sodom Laurel area — most significantly ballad singer Dellie Norton and her informally adopted son, Junior — didn’t know the luxury of ennui.
“In Sodom Laurel, people were related by birth or marriage,” Amberg writes. “Throughout her life, Dellie worked to fulfill her family’s most basic needs, raising food and canning, maintaining the farmstead, cutting firewood, caring for animals, and planting tobacco to earn money. She knew her land intimately: which field produced the best beans, where to find a stand of locust trees that could be split into fence posts, how to store food through the long winters without electricity, what time of the year to collect specific herbs that were used as medicines, where the springs were. She seemed proud of this hard-earned knowledge, and her life.
“As far as I could tell,” Amberg continues, “[Dellie] harbored no secret wish to live elsewhere or differently. I believe that Dellie knew the land itself was a valuable asset. Her ability to survive and do well on her land provided her with real security; it was her home place and promised the continuation of her family line.”
The author’s measured recollections run like a drought-proof creek through this arresting timeline of black-and-white portraits, interspersed with quotes from Norton (who died in 1993) and Junior. Amberg’s musings, at times, bear the strain of apology. From the beginning, the photographer was aware of his responsibility in documenting his rural subjects, lest the results reek of condescension.
“What right did I have to assume that I could represent a culture I knew little about?” he remembers wondering early on. “Was I furthering stereotypes or simply picturing the superficialities of a deeply intricate society? I was sometimes embarrassed that my photographs offered no tangible benefits in a community that seemed to value things that aided survival.”
To that end, Amberg immersed himself, for a time, in the back-wrecking tradition of tobacco growing and harvesting, noting that several months of hard toil sometimes yielded little more than a moldy crop and a few hundred dollars. Joining his neighbors’ labors, however, was a way to simultaneously connect with them and ease his own apprehension about photographing them.
“Work,” he writes, “was common ground for all of us, and it relaxed everyone when I took pictures.”
Amberg, recovering from testicular cancer diagnosed shortly after meeting Norton and her family, remembers feeling surprised by his new friends’ loyalty.
“Dellie, Berzilla and Marthie came to visit a few times,” he relates. “Their concern touched me, given the short time I’d known them and the lengths they had to go to get to the hospital.”
But the photographer’s impressions are sensibly balanced between light and dark.
When the ’70s folk-music boom brought sudden attention — and sometimes money — to Sodom Laurel ballad singers, rivalries ignited. “There was also a lot of drinking, which often led to fights, shootings, thefts, and other acts of violence and mayhem,” Amberg writes. “Most everyone, Dellie included, carried a gun.
“Here in Sodom, twenty-two miles from Marshall and the sheriff’s office, people solved their own problems and were quick to defend themselves and their land. And while everyone was proud of their generational links to the land … many home places were littered with trash piles and junked cars, and had outhouses built over creeks.”
Amberg also writes about “countless acts of kindness and moments of serenity.
“People would invite me to spend the night and mean it, not taking no for an answer.”
Working the gray areas
The photographer expresses similarly poised views on the loaded subject of tobacco growing. Madison County, he points out, has been the state’s leading producer of burley tobacco for 100 years.
“I find it wonderfully ironic,” he said by phone, “that we have this product that is [the country’s] leading cause of preventable death, but at the same time, that same product has provided life for numerous places like Madison County.”
Given tobacco use’s dark consequences, Amberg says he wouldn’t mind seeing an end to local production. But he also stresses the repercussions of this ostensibly positive outcome.
“When we lose tobacco, we also lose this whole sense of community,” he notes.
Back when he was tending his own crop, “the vast number of county [farmers] all grew an acre or less of tobacco,” he recalls. “Family helped family. It gave you a real sense of being a part of someplace.” Today, tobacco farms in Madison County are much larger and far fewer, with predictable results.
“There’s no neighbor helping neighbor anymore,” Amberg observes.
The construction of the I-26 corridor — which has meant the destruction of centuries-old homesteads in Madison County — can be interpreted as an ugly side of development. But Amberg is quick to point out that change, “whether it be anything that monumental or something much smaller, is both good and bad.
“When I moved here 30 years ago,” he continues, “downtown Asheville was completely boarded up. There were one or two restaurants, no shops. … It was a very, very dead city.”