Work of the Week – December 9, 2013
by Adrian Etheridge
Rob Amberg (1947-Present) is a documentary photographer and writer famous for his depiction of the rural South. In particular, he focuses on how technological and economic progress are erasing backwoods cultures as they cling to survival. Born in Washington, D.C. and educated in Catholic schools, Amberg graduated from the University of Dayton in 1969. He first realized photography’s “potential for social change” at Dayton after producing a slide-tape presentation. This realization influenced his aesthetic throughout his photography career. For his civil service after being granted Conscientious Objector status with respect to the draft, Amberg taught nursery school in Tucson, AZ where he published his first photographs. In 1973, he moved to rural Madison County, NC, whose rich rural environment inspired him to spend the last 40 years photographing the culture there. Amberg has also worked for non-profit organizations photographing rural communities and family farms.
Sodom Laurel Album (2002), Amberg’s first book documenting the hidden lives of the folks of Sodom Laurel, NC, concentrates on one woman, then (in 1975) 76-year-old Dellie Norton. With photos showing the way of life of a county that did not get electricity until 1950, stories describing the ups and downs of Norton and friends’ lives, and even Amberg’s personal journal entries, the book intriguingly shows a growing relationship between a photographer and his newly adopted community. Since the initial publication, Amberg has produced the sequel, The New Road: I-26 and the Footprints of Progress in Appalachia (2009), and is currently working on a third, Shatterzone, completing the trilogy.
Given the longevity of his work, this photographer has taken hundreds of photographs. The Museum was excited to recently acquire the photograph Liz Franklin at Home into its Permanent Collection. This beautiful black and white print depicts a frail old woman sitting in her bedroom for close to the last time. Soon, she would move to Asheville to live with her daughter in a residence more adequate for her aging body. The photo’s deep depth of field allows the viewer to see in detail Franklin’s quaint room in a house with no indoor plumbing or electricity. These details allow the viewer to envision the rest of Franklin’s dwelling, imagining the difficult circumstances in which she has probably lived much of her life.
Black and white photos have a timeless and dated quality to them, and this photo is no exception. Though this photo was only taken 40 years ago, Franklin looks like she could have been from an era decades before. In addition, Amberg’s expert use of light and shadow cast half of the old woman’s face in the dark, giving her a mysterious quality as of someone who has much more to her than meets the eye. Her wrinkled skin, sunken cheeks and stoic expression give her the character of someone who has nobly lived a hard life.
Many could look at this photo and see a romanticized version of life in a rural county. On the surface, this photo gives Franklin the heroic qualities of someone who has lived a vastly different life than many modernized viewers. However, the discerning Amberg noticed something about the romantic nature of the portrait that brings to light an interesting point about photography as a documentary art form. Franklin herself, and many like her photographed in the same style, does not see anything idyllic or heroic about her life.
In his work, Amber searches for “truth through photography.” While Franklin’s view of herself may differ from what others see in the photograph, Amberg did illustrate his own opinion of the wizened woman. And in this, the photo does justice to the photographer’s reverence to a hidden community unfamiliar to many.
Artwork above: Rob Amberg (1947-Present), Liz Franklin at Home, 1975, Photograph, Black and White Silver Gelatin Print, 8.00 x 5.5 inches. Gift of the Artist. Permanent Collection. 1978.03.91.