A Response

Yesterday, I posted a link on my Facebook page to an article written by photographer Roger May that deals with a confrontation between a photographer and residents of a small community in West Virginia. At the time of the incident, I wrote a response that was not published. I've included it here.


The Four Elements

Rob Amberg

For the longest time I’ve thought of photography as a dialogue between four distinct, and often competing, elements - the photographer, his tools, the subject, and the viewer. I’ve also come to understand that omitting or favoring any of these elements is riskier than it might appear.

I bring this up because I’ve been reading with interest two recently published articles about photography. The first, in the April 19 edition of the New York Times Magazine, was written by the legendary photographer Sally Mann and deals with the complex relationship between viewers of her art, the subjects of that work, and the maker of it.

The second article was written by photographer Roger May for the April 21 online edition of Photo District News. May details an incident in West Virginia where two young photographers, a brother and sister, were surrounded and confronted by angry townspeople who accused them of photographing without permission, visual theft, so to speak.

The articles are long, but well worth the time. They speak to issues that will only become more relevant as imagery plays a more significant role in our lives. They are linked below.

As full disclosure, I’ve known and admired Sally Mann and her work for over thirty years. I’ve known Roger May for the last five years and serve on the advisory board for his Looking at Appalachia Project.

Photography is unique in the arts for its dependence on an external reality in the making of the image. Quite simply, we have to have some thing to photograph. For most of photography’s short lifespan, the public has been encouraged to accept photographs as truth, that there is no difference between these superficial representations on paper and reality itself. “Photographs don’t lie, they’re just like being there,” is the constant refrain.

Photographers will be the first to tell you that photographs do lie. Made in an instant, they offer a fleeting glimpse into a framed landscape of life with nothing of the feel, smell, or touch of the real thing. Decisions about point-of-view, cropping, timing, detail and so many other variables are all controlled by the photographer and subject to his whims, prejudices, and cultural DNA. But even with this subjective mix of ingredients, we still assume, to the point of belief, that what is pictured actually happened.

Sally Mann has been dealing with this disconnect since publication of her book Immediate Family in 1992, which included nude photographs of her three children in romanticized landscapes. While Mann’s sensual images are exquisite renderings, moments in time, she maintains they are nothing more. But she has weathered scores of comments and letters questioning her motherhood, her common sense, and even her children’s likeability. At one point she was told by a FBI agent to keep a loaded shotgun close at hand should a persistent stalker choose to act. Talk about suffering for your art.

Roger May’s story from West Virginia is almost predictable in its telling and it seems that everyone involved was victimized by cultural insensitivities. One can only feel badly and scared for the two photographers. In our country we are allowed to photograph in public venues and would assume we’d be able to do so without threat. But the residents of any community should be able to say no to invasion by camera and be free from representation by people unknown to them, with agendas they can only imagine.

There is a moment from years ago. I had an exhibit at the old Asheville Art Museum of my early work from the Sodom community. I was intent on Dellie, the protagonist of my book Sodom Laurel Album, seeing the show. The appointed day was cold, gray, and threatening snow and she clearly didn’t want to go. But we stopped to eat dinner in town and the sky cleared some. As we walked into the dark basement of the Civic Center and into the Art Museum, she gave a hard look at a metal sculpture of a dinosaur in the lobby. “What kind of a place is this?” She questioned. But she followed me to the gallery, and once there, her mood lightened. At home with neighbors and kin, she became more animated and freely interacted with the pictures. “Why, Marthie looks worried about something. Somethin’ has give her the headache.” Or, “Thar’s Junior at the High Rock. He tried to hide and scare John Rountree when they walked up there. He was always doing stuff like that.” For Dellie, the photographs were personal and real, a part of her personal past, and less about art or history. As we were leaving, she said, “Those pictures were real plain. I knew them every one. But I just don’t understand why a place such as this would want a picture of me hangin’ in it.”

Photographs are ambiguous creatures, full of factual information and imagined meaning. When I began my career in photography over 40 years ago, I was told of societies that believed the making of someone’s photograph was akin to the stealing of that person’s soul. I ignored that maxim and thought it nothing but the superstitious belief of unenlightened people. But I’ve come to understand the wisdom in those words - that stealing souls is precisely what photographers do although they might call it something less inflammatory, like capturing someone’s essence.

Whatever we choose to call them, photographs are ubiquitous today and the number of photographs made daily is eye-numbing. Most everyone is armed with a cell phone and we’ve clearly become a visual society. But we have only an elementary understanding of the unique power of photographs and how they work. Photography has forged social movements, helped end wars and careers, and taught us about our basic humanity. As individuals, images have moved us to tears, to anger, to action, to purchase, to lust, and to remember. We don’t quite know how or why pictures spark this entire range of emotions, but we know that they do. Does it have to do with the photographer, or the subject, the composition and light, the viewer himself, or some combination of elements?

Until we - photographers, subjects, and viewers - learn to see and understand the workings and the doings of this complex mix of elements, we will continue dealing with face-offs in West Virginia and assaults on our cultural treasures.



Three Years Ago, Today. . .

July 12, 2012, I posted my first blog entry with the following piece on my grandfather, Joe Galeano There's been quite a few entries since that time and you can reference all of them by going to the blog page on my website and hitting the overview button. http://robamberg.com/overview/ Thank you all for your interest and support. It's been a fun project.


ShatterZone - A Fiction


Our nights are quiet and dark, save for a pair of screech owls calling from either end of the holler, or, coyotes high on the mountain yearning for goats. The sky is studded with stars and when the moon is full the forest dances with shadows and shapes the daylight doesn’t know. Sometimes we lie on a blanket in the yard, smoking, sipping a shared Bulleit, counting fireflies, waiting for comets, and soon making love in the comfort of dusky light.



The 40th 4th


One of the points of consistency in my forty-two years in Madison County has been the 4th of July party held annually by Paul Gurewitz, Laurie Pedersen, and Gary Gumz. This year's event is the 40th consecutive party and while the personnel has changed over the years, the party hasn't, except that it's gotten bigger. I want to believe I was at the first one in 1975, but if I was I didn't shoot any pictures, which would have been unusual. These images are from the 1977 party. Music and dancing in the now mostly demolished Art Gallery, pizza cooked in the car hood oven, and plenty of children and dogs. I met my wife Leslie at the 1988 party so, in essence, this party changed my life and I'm forever grateful for that.

But this party also conjures up childhood memories of the 4th - gatherings of my extended Italian family, first generation Americans all, and proud of it, tons of food, badminton and horseshoes, fireworks, and heartfelt goodwill. 

Heritage of Hate


Klan Rally, Asheville, NC 1986


Klan Rally, Asheville, NC 1986

Klan Rally, Madison County, NC, 1976

Klan Rally, Madison County, NC, 1976


Heritage is tricky stuff. We all have it. Some of us honor a particular heritage, be it Southern or African-American, or anything else. Some of us honor nothing at all.  In my case I choose to pay homage to my mother’s Sicilian/Italian ancestry and culture.

One of the problems with heritage, I venture to say any heritage, is it comes with ugly stuff, incidents and histories we should despise and be nothing but ashamed of. And any objective reading of history would single out Anglo (white) culture as the absolute worst of the lot. We white folks have done our level best to abuse and exterminate every ethnicity and social group on the planet.

I love my Italian heritage. Rome has defined much of the world’s rich legacy of art, food, architecture, culture and much more. I, and many people I know, regularly celebrate some aspect of our shared birthright. We visit the old country. We know a few words of Italian. We cook the food and have recipes from our grandmother. We speak with our hands. And we honor our kin, even those that died fighting for the Axis powers in World War II.

But, I’ve stopped participating in Columbus Day celebrations. Yes, he is credited with discovering America and is ultimately responsible for bringing all of us to this country. But, the bottom line is, he is one of those ugly truths, a human stain that began the 500-year process of liquidating our Native societies. He was also a slaver.

I love the South’s pace, that slow meandering that serves to slow me down. I love the South’s music and literature, its landscape and stories, its food and its drink. I love the men and women, all of them, who have made it the place it is. I love the South’s heritage.

But I do not love, or respect, the part of the South’s heritage that promotes hate, a lack of tolerance, traitors, and reverence for stupidity and ignorance. Surely, by this time, we should understand the part of heritage that disrespects, dishonors, and promotes hatred should be thrown on the trash heap of history.  



Dad and Me


Dad and Me, Washington, DC, 1948

My Dad loved his Desotos.
I think this is his first one. 
I was his first child. A son.
I would've been a year old in this picture.
He would've been 30.
People called him "Bud." His name was Robert.
He was a good guy, a better than good father.
I couldn't have asked for more.
I know this from my face - secure, ecstatic, bright-eyed.
He has a concerned look.
Why? I wonder.


At Linda Hessman's


At Linda Creaseman's, with Farm Aid, Dodge City, Kansas 2015

Out walking while Charlie and Brooke do the interview with Linda.
In many ways these are my favorite times on these trips of ours.
The walks. Alone. Quiet. No thoughts of others. 
Some miles across an open field, pocked with prairie dog holes.
Moments without a schedule.
In a new place. One where I've never been.
Alert. Allowing life to come to me.


Appalachia Now

I'm pleased to have one of my photographs on the cover of this new Anthology of Appalachian short stories published by Bottom Dog Press. The photograph of Natassia Rae is one in a new series of portraits I'm doing of some of the young people who have come into our lives over the last few years. This is a dual honor for me - having my work associated with this wonderful group of authors and an exceptional small press, and, the opportunity to spend time with an amazing group of people far younger than I. 

Appalachia Now

Short Stories of Contemporary Appalachia

Editors: Larry Smith and Charles Dodd White

Just Out ~ June 2015

Authors: Darnell Arnoult, Rusty Barnes, Matt Brock, Taylor Brown, Chris Holbrook, David Joy, Marie Manilla, Charles Dodd White, Mesha Maren, Carrie Mullins, Chris Offutt, Mark Powell, Jon Sealy, Savannah Sipple, Jacinda Townsend,  Meredith Sue Willis

Appalachia Now is an essential and necessary collection of stories. For too many, the people of Appalachia are little more than stereotypes. Appalachia Now undoes that injustice by representing the real people of Appalachia today without forgetting that we can’t help but be shaped by our geography. Appalachia is as much a character here as are any of these diverse, complex, troubled characters. This collection is a delving—an invitation into a world often represented by pop culture, but seldom as authentically nor as skillfully as by the writers herein. ~Jeff Vande Zande

“The geologic entry to the Appalachian foothills… had a foreboding quality, a warning to travelers that the world beyond was very different.” So states Chris Offutt in his story, “Back Porch.” His and other stories collected in Appalachia Now serve to hammer the point home like a coal miner’s pick or a fist to the jaw.” ~Christina Lovin

178 pgs. $17 from us direct.

 *This book is a follow-up to the best selling Degrees of Elevation anthology published by Bottom Dog Press in 2010.

  • $17.00

Mermaids, in Marshall?


When I moved to Madison County in 1973, Marshall was a busy place. Three car dealerships, two grocery stores, two hardware stores, the Sunnyside and the Shadyside florists, the library, people lining the counter at Doc Niles's pharmacy waiting for coffee or biscuits and gravy, and an assortment of people attached to the courthouse - lawyers, deputies, criminals, families. Parades were held on Christmas, the 4th of July, and Memorial Day. The town was full and alive and rich with activity. I caught a Greyhound bus in front of the Old Rock Cafe and took it to Knoxville to meet a friend. It was a main route.

By 1983, the town was dying. Businesses were closing and buildings were boarded up. I had opened a studio downtown, Main Street Studios, on the third floor in what is now the Flow Art Gallery and eventually moved into the space. The town would empty by five o'clock, the quiet only punctuated by the regular arrivals of the Norfolk Southern train. As the 1980s passed into the 1990s, Marshall slowed even more, the town abandoned by county residents who now did their shopping, and hanging out, on the Bypass or in Weaverville. The solitary parade at Christmas was attended by fewer people every year. Marshall resembled small, rural Southern towns across the entire region, passed by in a societal rush to modernity.

New people began arriving in the 2000s with money, ideas, and energy. Buildings were purchased and renovated into apartments, offices and galleries. Music, art, weddings and parades brought people into town who hadn't been there for years, or ever. It appears Marshall has been reborn, albeit in ways many long-time residents wouldn't have predicted. Last Friday evening at the Mermaid Parade, there were more people in town than I've seen in many years. Businesses were making money, families were having fun, people visiting, music playing, it was silly and delightful and a precise definition of the word community.

I've heard some born-in-county folk and older newcomers say they just don't like what Marshall has become, what with all the tattoos and dreadlocks and beer. They wish it had stayed like it was and one can sense resentment among certain people. It's too bad, that attitude, and I hate to hear it. The reality is the town was near dead and little effort was being made to revive it. But that's not the point, what is regrettable is that people are missing the opportunity to participate in the rebirth of their town as a destination for something besides court. 







At the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute


One of the more moving visits from our recent trip, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute with Carl Schinasi and Virginia Volker. Got to see an amazing exhibit of photographs by Spider Martin, one of the great documentarians of this period of time in our nation's history. The sculpture gallery in the top two photographs is haunting. Rosa Parks (below) is resolute. A good day.

From Lee's Levee


From the Levee in Lee Walker's Front Yard, Ninth Ward, New Orleans, LA 2015

Sometimes, when a photographer is lucky and standing in the right spot, when his timing, too, is spot on, he can produce an image that causes a viewer to look twice. It often has to do with framing and point-of-view, and how you transform a three-dimensional subject into a two-dimensional representation on paper or screen. It's part of the magic of photography - the ability to make someone ask, "What is going on here?" 

I love pictures that are based in fact, that are believable. I want to come away from a picture and assume what I've just looked at actually happened and has an identifiable reality. But I most like photographs that tell stories, ones that take that reality, that evidence, and give it a twist, a blur, a ghostly presence that encourages more stories, new perspectives, and perhaps different ways of seeing well-worn subjects. 

Click the photograph to enlarge, it needs to be big.


Hero - The Honorable John Lewis


Selma, Alabama 2015


Selma, Alabama 2015


One of America's truly sacred spaces and the man who showed us the way across this seemingly unbridgeable gulf. He continues to lead the way today. It was an honor to walk where he and the patriots with him had walked. It was far easier for me - no tear gas, no clubs, no attacking police - just heat and humidity and a town mostly empty of people. Still, the symbolism of this holy place was clear, as was the knowledge we still have much walking to do.


When a Place Reminds You


Highway 212, Olivia, Minnesota, 2015

This for my friend - tie and vest maker, country girl, part of the family - Olivia Shealy. As we drove through this small town in western Minnesota, I could only think of you. It's the Corn Capital after all and you're kind of corny. And I'm sure you grow corn in your garden. We all do. And I think I once saw you wear your hair in a fashion similar to the ear on the building. But I don't know. I think I just saw the name of the town and thought of you, and that was gift enough. 




Jamie Paul, in my studio, PawPaw, Madison County, NC 2013

It's a rare thing when a person enters your life who profoundly influences you toward new thinking and action. When that happens in one's later years, with the tendency to become fixed in our ways, it's even better. And when the person is young, more than half your age, that's the sweetest of all.

I'm not going to list the details. To do so would make this an extra long post and one of the things Jamie keeps hammering in my head is to keep these ramblings of mine short. The secret is in the edit. 

Thank you, Jamie.

Oh, yes, jamiepaulmusic.com


Jamie at Old Ground Farm, Big Pine, Madison County, NC, 2013


Walking near Granite Falls


Walking near Granite Falls, Minnesota, 2015

High overhead it's bright sun.
Flattening the already flattened landscape.
So subtle a rise just ahead. For an instant,
it's enough to cut off the distant horizon.
1/250th of a second worth. 
I'm more interested in the landscape than I used to be. 
For years it was always people. 
People doing this, people doing that.
But lately, it's the land that has caught my eye.
And held it.