With Benjamin, our cousin Enzo Costantino, and his friend, John Carlo. We drove up in the mountains, to the north slope of Mt. Etna, Enzo looking for wine. We stopped in a small village and he asked around and we came to this man. I can't remember his name, if I ever knew it. He had barrels in the underground of his house that looked like they had been there for centuries. We tasted a couple of different varieties and Enzo bought a few gallons for his own home use.
The Babbitts left Orlando, Florida, in the early 1970s, when their orange grove that had been in Howard's family for thee generations was swallowed by development surrounding DisneyWorld. They planted apples and raised their children on Sprinkle Creek. We bought rocking chairs at their yard sale before they moved because of I-26.
- from The New Road
There are copies of my book I-26 and the Footprints of Progress in Appalachia available for purchase on my website. Copies of my other books, including Sodom Laurel Album, are also available. http://robamberg.com/store/
It had been a long, dusty day in Pompeii. We were happy to get to the Forum, the main square in the city, close to the exits, knowing we could get a gelato at the snack bar. In the square there were a number of modern art sculptures on permanent display depicting historical and mythological figures. The sculptures were made of steel, and very large, and for the most part anatomically correct in that not-so-subtle Greek/Roman way. I enjoyed watching how different groups and individuals responded to Hercules' (I think it was Hercules) most impressive penis. This particular young man was with a group of friends, but he approached the statue alone with a confidence bordering on brashness. He sat down on the leg and put his mouth on the giant penis. The reaction from the group of people around the sculpture was quick and mixed. Mostly there were groans and sounds of embarrassment, but there was also laughter from his friends. The boy, sensing the displeasure, stopped, looked right at the crowd and announced, "It's okay, everyone. We are French."
One day a few years ago, not long after Jamie began working with me, he was looking through contact sheets, familiarizing himself with my work. He found this photograph. I can't say it was one I had ever even looked at, much less thought about printing. Jamie said he liked it and was able to talk about why and his thoughts got my attention. We set out to scan and edit it.
At this point, I had no idea who the person in the photograph was or where I made it. For the longest time I thought it was taken over at Berzilla Wallin's house, during one of her homecomings. But her granddaughter, Lana Robinson, said she didn't know the woman and reminded me that Berzilla's house was log.
It was a bit of a mystery to me. It was a singular negative - the negatives before and after it from two different situations where I knew the people or the place. I copied it to my ex wife thinking she might know who it was as the other images were of our home or with her good friend, Becky. She had no idea.
By now I had grown to like the image - the quietness of it, the easy posture, the far-away look - and see how it could easily fit with a current project I'm working on. But the project is particular to place and theme and how to include an image from an unknown origin of an unknown person I know nothing about.
I talk a lot about photography providing us with memories of our shared and personal pasts and I think that is so. But with this photograph, my memory fails me and I'm left wondering who is this person? who came into my life for 1/125th of a second and has never entered my mind again until now; and not as a memory, but only as a beautiful image.
Last week after posting the image of my mother from 1942, there was a comment from a woman named Lana Robinson. I didn't know her, but have noticed over the last couple of years that she is a regular reader of my blog posts. In her comment she mentioned she was the baby in her family and her mother was Belva. I've only known one person in my life with the name Belva and that was Belva Cutshall, who was the daughter of Berzilla Wallin, one of my favorite Madison County people.
Lana moved to Nashville, Tennessee, in 1971, which explains why I never met her since I didn't move here until 1973. She thought we had maybe met at Berzilla's or her mother's funerals, but I have no memory of it.
In 1979, I was working on a Photo Survey grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. The idea was to do a year-long look at the county and present the work in an exhibit at Mars Hill College. The entire project is now housed at the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.
I didn't know Belva well. We would see each other at family decorations, or events where her mother and brother, Doug Wallin, were singing. But my memory of her is formed by this photograph I made at the Marshall Bypass in 1979 as part of the grant - genuine, easy to be around, direct and colorful.
Photography has opened many doors for me. It has taken me places I wouldn't dream of going and introduced me to amazing people I never would have met otherwise. So, it fascinates me that forty-two years after meeting Berzilla, who was eighty-three when I met her, I find out her granddaughter, who I don't know, reads my blog. I think this speaks to how communication has changed during that time period; the technology has changed us. But also, I think it shows us how photography provides us with not only memories of our shared and personal pasts, but also offers opportunities to engage in the future.
I've wanted to photograph our neighbor Jerry Moore for many years, but it's never worked out. We see each mostly on the road below our house, me walking, him riding, and it isn't often. And when we do meet up, I either don't have a camera with me, or he's in a hurry to get to his girlfriend's house in Asheville, or he just doesn't feel like it. But the other day I was at the bottom of our driveway on the last leg of my walk, and they stopped to visit. We caught up on neighborhood news, laughed a lot. Jerry's had some health issues lately - heart, diabetes - so my wanting to photograph him was weighing on my mind. I wanted some tangible memory. I had my iPhone with me and asked if I could make his picture. He joked about breaking my camera, but was more than agreeable. He did complain about not having combed his hair. His girlfriend said, "Jerry, you never comb your hair."
I'm not sure which photograph I like better. Entirely different looks from the same face. I sense Jerry would like the color image. He's more open, positive, happy, flirtatious. The color makes him look younger. It is him at his most appealing. But I also know the black and white side of him, as real as the other. Darker, more suspicious, more hidden.
I like Jerry. I like the color Jerry and I like the black/white Jerry. I like the diversity he brings to my life. He helps me realize not everyone is like me and how fortunate I am to live in a place where I am reminded of that every day.
Looking at this beautiful, mutely colored photograph of my mother when she was about twenty-one years old, it's easy to see why my father fell in love with her. I'd say I inherited my good looks from her, but I've never remotely looked this good.
My mother was a first generation American of Italian and Sicilian descent. She identified as American and was more than ready to give up the majority of her Italian background. At an early age she changed her name from Caterina Celeste Galeano, named after her two grandmothers, to Catherine Agnes Galeano, adding Amberg when she married my dad in 1945. Everyone knew her as Catty. She understood Italian, but I never knew her to speak it. We ate spaghetti most Sundays and lasagna on Christmas and Easter, along with my grandmother's classic Italian wedding soup. But we mostly ate my father's mid-western, German meat and potatoes diet. Early on, she traded olive oil for Wesson and Crisco.
But she was also a classic Italian mother. To say she was driven underestimates her and in her lifetime she achieved more than she dreamed possible as a young girl growing up in a Italian neighborhood in depression-era DC. She was adept at pointing that drive toward her children. There were expectations about education, cleanliness, family, church, loyalty and patriotism and she used guilt with the best of them to see those expectations were met. She could be fierce about this and it drove me crazy.
On our recent trip we stopped for a brief time in my grandmother's home town of Gioia del Colle in Puglia. There, walking around town, having coffee, and later driving through the immediate countryside, I felt familiar and comfortable, like I had been there before, even though I hadn’t. Psychologists call it genetic memory, that is, memory that is with us at birth even without any sensory experience of the memory. For me, there was something in the air, as we’re fond of saying, the smell, the taste, the salt coming off of the nearby Aegean Sea. It was something I knew, deep inside, but couldn’t quite identify. But I sensed the answer lay in ten or more generations of genetic memory that preceded me, most recently passed from my grandmother and mother, and onward to my children. For this I am eternally grateful.
Thank you all for sharing our trip with us.
Our final two days were in Rome, one of the world's most romantic cities, and my mind was on love. I booked a double room in a place that promised peace and quiet, a place of solace. What better way to end our trip, I thought. We were met at the entrance by the man we'd spoken with who escorted us into a stunning courtyard, filled with soft light and magnificent flowers and fruit trees. I was slightly suspicious when I saw the religious statues, but Rome is full of religious statues, I said to myself. Then I saw the nuns - three of them in full regalia - acting like they owned the place, which, in fact, they did. They lived in the other building, the man assured us.
Our room was spare and small. Two single beds (thus the double billing), narrow and hard with mattresses a short step away from bare ground. There was a single lamp between them and a small attached bathroom. A window opened to the street outside. As promised, it was peaceful and quiet. My disappointment was palpable. But I said to Leslie, "I've never made love in a convent before and it offers the opportunity to rid myself of any remaining catholic inhibitions. I'll show 'em nuns." Leslie, nothing if not a good sport, agreed to go along with the program.
We spent the day walking through Trastevere's elegant parks and gardens and suppered in a small family restaurant just up the street from the nunnery. Another great meal of pasta and seafood, wine, a light desert and we walked home arm in arm in the cool air. There, we undressed and I invited her to my bed. We are not big people, but cramped doesn't begin to describe the situation. Yet we persisted, thankful for the lack of creaking bedsprings, or any bedsprings at all, in the absolute silence of the convent night. But then, the bed itself took over, knocking, banging, wood on wood, wood on wall, making noise I only imagined possible on a boat in a North Sea storm, echoing both inside the building and outside in the street. I lost focus and began thinking of neighbors, the other residents, and yes, the nuns. "I'm sorry," I said, "i've got to stop." Leslie looked me in the eye, stroked my cheek and said, "well, I guess those nuns have still got you."
After long days of walking in Florence,
in the heat,
surrounded by the beauty of this elegant city,
aching legs and backs,
seeking respite from the other tourists
and their noise and disregard,
we would board the 14a bus for the
30 minute ride to Girone.
Once there, we would walk again.
This time, uphill,
but quiet and solitary,
the smell of countryside,
darkness offering the sight of stars,
things familiar to us.
We rested easy and
awoke to morning light
over olives and grapes.
- click photographs to enlarge
There was a moment on this trip when I realized that I was just another tourist. Until that time I had mistakenly, and arrogantly, believed I was somehow different than the throngs of people around me reading the same guide books, making the same photographs, and drinking the same bottled water they stored in backpacks. Just the number of selfie-sticks, and the corresponding selfies being made with them, was overwhelming. I had the sense people were less interested in the actual sights and more interested in showing the world they had been there. I thought,
that's not me.
I wanted to believe because I was half Italian and could speak a few words of the language, I possessed some unique and intuitive insight into the culture and history. That my photographs and observations would stand alone and mark me as an insider, rather than the outsider I clearly was to anyone paying attention.
Rome and Florence were on the verge of "too much." There are people everywhere. Europeans, Americans, Asians, and all points in between. Rude people, friendly people, tired and hungry people. People ecstatic about being in places they had previously only dreamed of being. People willing to stand in line for hours to see the Vatican art collection or wade through pedestrian torrents on the Ponte Vecchio.
Italy is absolutely dependent on these millions of tourists that flock to its churches and galleries and incomparable vistas and beaches. Tourism is a major revenue producer throughout the country, but some cities and towns would cease to exist without it. It seems that everyone in these places is a tour guide, or runs a hotel, or is an entertainer that caters to the fantasies of visitors.
So, here we are. Pressing flesh with unknowns on packed trains. Sipping wine and coffee in quiet cafes on remote side alleys. Vowing not to enter another church. Relishing the soft voices and respect in a little-visited, underground cemetery for those not able to afford to be buried in a church. A meal with my Sicilian cousins and their wives in a restaurant filled with locals where my cousin Enzo coaxed Leslie into eating things she never dreamed she would put in her mouth.
Throughout all of it, I play the tourist.
On our trip Leslie mentioned I seemed to want to go into every church we came to, hinting that maybe I had yet to truly give up the Catholicism of my early years. I countered by talking about ritual and pageantry, western civilization, the incredible art and the role the Catholic Church played throughout history in fostering and sustaining those things. In that sense she was right. I was still tied to the church and was easily sucked in through the gilded doors where I could bask in the sculptures, stained glass and murals, and the omnipresent depictions of the crucifixion that I had studied and grown up with.
My grandmother took me to Italy in 1967. I was nineteen and just starting my fifteenth year of Catholic education. To say I had been a "good Catholic boy" and "model citizen" to that point would be understating things. I was ardent, and a believer, a grand knight of our church's altar boys, who had once pondered the priesthood. But that was a changing time and I, too, was changing, coming in contact with outside forces, and beginning to think more for myself.
That trip forced me to confront my belief in the Catholic Church, and ultimately, my faith. Faced with the spectacle of the church, its immense riches and control over people's lives, I was left confused and questioning. Quite simply, how could a religion that preached humility and openness and a commitment to the poor, lavish itself in such splendor? it's a question I've never been able to answer with any satisfaction, and, if anything, my views on the church have only grown more extreme and negative.
That said, I didn't tire of these churches and found myself making offerings in many of them. I lit candles in front of altars that especially moved me and sat quietly in empty side chapels. And I did want to go into most all of them. I told myself I was supporting the art, the history, the sheer beauty.
But I left those places with my belief intact.
Most anywhere in Italy a person is left confused by
the assault of mixed messages.
They're impossible to miss and
always involve the age-old struggle,
the sacred versus the profane.
One playing off the other
within the same frame.
Daring you to choose.
This is a slightly different version of an iphone photograph I published on facebook and instagram the day I made it, April 14. I like this one better - it's wider, more panoramic, and framed with the piers that tighten the image. And the addition of the seagulls. Made from the deck of the Florio Rubbatino as we entered Naples harbor in the early morning after an all-night ferry from Palermo. Mt. Vesuvius is on the right.
The idea of cruising into Naples on this ship was important for me. Naples was the point of departure for my maternal grandparents on their journeys to the United States, my grandmother in 1906 and mio nonno in 1913. I wanted to see for myself their last view of their home country, perhaps the image of place that remained in their memories.
I don't know what time of day their ships left, but I suspect the view itself would have been much the same as now, a century later - the cranes and port, the mountains, the gulls; only the jetstream would not have been there and it, but a fortunate reference to a moment in time. The sky and water have been spoken of since Greek times. And, of course, Vesuvius.
I can only wonder what my grandparents were thinking. They were leaving a very poor country, going to what they felt would be a better life. And it was. Gram was only eight or nine years old and secure in the company of her entire family so I'm guessing for her it was all a big adventure. Grandpa was older at sixteen and traveling with his older brother and it must have been a journey to the unknown. They left their family in Sicily and never saw them again.
All of this is in my head as I wake at five and head to the bar for an espresso and its welcome eye-focuser. On deck, it's crisp, bracing I think they call it. The smell and taste of the salt air, they've always been there. Light is coming and I began to see land. The mountains first and then the city, harbor and water. Is this what they saw? Is the excitement I'm feeling on arriving, the same as what they felt on leaving?
For a number of years now, we've had professional wrestlers, strippers, Dog Daze and Mermaids in Madison County, but to the best of my knowledge, this was our first Drag Queen Dance Party.
I've just got to ask, "How many pictures of the Coliseum do we really need?"
Obviously, one more.