For 41 years, photographer Rob Amberg has kept an acute documentary eye on Madison County. With his camera, he’s created an insightful, ongoing narrative that’s familiar yet analytical of every back road, kitchen and front porch in a bucolic landscape. Amberg’s intimate and personal views of the county’s residents have long been among his most lauded works. But those subjects’ cultural identity, just like the terrain they inhabit, has been rapidly evolving. And that shifting collective identity stands at the core of ShatterZone, a new exhibit of photographs at the River Arts District’s Pink Dog Creative gallery. The show opens on Friday, Nov. 7, with a reception from 5-8 p.m.
ShatterZone is Amberg’s first Asheville show in more than 12 years. A 2002 exhibit celebrated the publication of his book Sodom Laurel Album. The current show, curated by Amberg, with help from studio assistant Jamie Paul and Asheville-based photographer Ralph Burns, features 60 photographs arranged in small categorical vignettes. “There is a sweeping narrative at the core of Rob’s work,” says Burns. “One that is lyrical, but also revealing and instructing. In some deeply ambiguous way, it’s very touching.”
These works, which form the third (and potentially final) chapter in Amberg’s long-running series documenting Madison County life, reveal a broad cultural shift. A few of the images, taken in the 1970s and ’80s, provide a baseline for comparison. But they also obscure the passage of time, since many of the new photographs depict contemporary pastoral landscapes and everyday activities that could just as easily have been culled from the past.
“As a young photographer he not only had a strong aesthetic sense and understood the cutting edge of documentary photography, but he also had a penetrating view of this new land that he had just moved into,” says Burns. That perspective has formed the backbone of Amberg’s work from day one. “What I see is a consistent but somewhat hidden stratum, with everything else — the fine details — laid around it.”
Front-porch gatherings, cookouts and glimpses of an annual Fourth of July party hang near photos of the Madison County Jail and shots of a Marshall rodeo. They’re essentially timeless, yet Amberg has taken care to subtly update them by capturing contemporary ephemera and atmospheric detail.
In one black-and-white shot, a young boy holds up a large jawbone (probably that of a horse), but his Harry Potter T-shirt pulls him into the present. A nearby photo of a child perched on a tailgate shows little that would help date it, though in fact it’s from 1981.
Another image shows two men shearing a large collie on their porch. Their heads are shaved on the sides. One sports a nose ring; the other has a forearm tattoo that reads “Romantic” and a piercing that spans the top of his earlobe. Both wear the tattered, patchwork clothing that Amberg continues to recognize in a growing community of former transients who call Madison County home — for now, at least.
It’s not that tattoos and piercings — nor movie-themed shirts and mohawks, for that matter — are new to Madison County. Rather, their inclusion in this body of work helps illustrate four decades of cultural evolution, both in the local scene and in Amberg’s own artistic perceptions. “These elements, brought in by a new generation of artists, back-to-the-landers and cultural refugees, have only recently become regular fixtures where there were once few or none at all,” says the photographer. “It’s these changes that add narrative to the structure of the photographs.”
That long-term attention to detail is what Burns sees as Amberg’s conceptual cornerstone — and his greatest contribution to documentary photography. “It’s a natural reordering of one of his core intellectual motivations in photographing in Madison County,” says Burns. “That, to me, is the mark of a brilliant observer — an observer who’s using, in this case, a camera to make those subtle observations.”
WHERE: Pink Dog Creative, pinkdog-creative.com
WHEN: The exhibit runs through Sunday, Jan. 11, with an opening reception Friday, Nov. 7, from 5-8 p.m.