“Rob Amberg’s images have the same durability and tenacity as the lives they depict. He is trusted well enough to be there, up close, when the women embrace in affection or when the farmer pauses in the heat. And Amberg does not betray that trust. What we see is sympathetic, not sentimental, simple but not facile.”
- Sally Mann
Rob Amberg was born in Washington, DC, in 1947. Educated in Catholic schools, he graduated from the University of Dayton in 1969. While there, he produced a slide-tape presentation that introduced him to the potential of photography as a tool for social change. After college, he was granted Conscientious Objector status to the draft and spent two and a half years in Tucson, Arizona, teaching nursery school as his alternative service. In Tucson, he produced his first published photographs – a piece on street preachers in a downtown park – and had his first one-person exhibit at Spectrum Gallery.
He moved to Madison County, North Carolina, in 1973 and began what has become his lifetime project – writing and photographing about the evolving culture and environment of his adopted county. His first book, Sodom Laurel Album, was published in 2002 by the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke and the University of North Carolina Press. His second book from Madison County, The New Road: I-26 and the Footprints of Progress in Appalachia, was published in 2009 by the Center for American Places at Columbia College Chicago. To complete the trilogy, a third book, tentatively titled Shatterzone, is in progress.
Throughout his career Amberg has been on staff or done assignment work for non-profit organizations and philanthropic foundations. His work has largely focused on rural communities, family farms, and the environment. His work is regularly published and exhibited nationally. He is the recipient of awards from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the North Carolina Humanities Council, the Center for Documentary Studies, and others. In 2004, he had the honor of presenting Sodom Laurel Album at the Library of Congress.
In July 2012, Amberg began serving as a Visiting Artist at Duke University, working specifically with a Literacy Project for middle-school students in Madison County. In 2011, he began working with the American Forest Foundation, documenting the relationship between tree farmers and their land. He gave the keynote address at the American Tree Farm Convention in 2011 and will continue his documentation for AFF in 2012.
Since moving to the mountains, Amberg has sought to participate in mountain life as much as he’s documented it. He lives with his wife, Leslie Stilwell, on a small farm where they raise gardens and shitake mushrooms, tend an assortment of animals, burn firewood, and drink water from a mountain spring.
“Amberg always sees rightly and pitilessly. He lays before us a vista of place and people, not just to delight the eye but to invite praise. A luminous spirit of uncommon folk at labor, play, music-making, and love envelopes this beautiful work in an aura of strangeness."
- Alan Trachtenberg