I-26, Corridor of Change


I had the pleasure of spending last Thursday at Western Carolina University as a guest speaker in the Art Department. I especially enjoyed the time with students and photography instructor, Susan Martin, and Denise Drury Homewood, the director of the Bardo Fine and Performing Arts Center. 
While speaking with Susan in her office she asked if I was interested in taking some copies of a catalog the school had produced for my exhibit there in 1997 titled I-26, Corridor of Change. I had copies in my files, but gladly took a few more. I hadn't looked at it in many years and was struck by how early in the process of my documentation of I-26 that show and catalog were produced. Construction on the road continued for another six years, ending in 2003, and production of my book, The New Road, continued for another six years after that, published in 2009. 
It's always interesting, and sometimes infuriating, to read what others say about your work so it was a real treat to revisit Mike Smith's essay in the catalog, which I enjoyed reading again. Everyone needs to know Mike's photographs. They are a true gift to our region's traditions of art and documentation. His book, You Ain't From Around Here, is simply remarkable. Mike and I both worked with the same publisher for our books, George Thompson. At the time George was the founder and publisher at the Center for American Places in Staunton, Virginia. He now heads GFT Publishing. Here are links to Mike's and George's websites. http://www.mikesmithphotographs.com/
I understand and accept the risk of publishing a praiseworthy essay about oneself. But I think Mike addresses questions and issues that are relevant to the photo community and the community at large. While we make over 2 billion photographs a day worldwide, we largely don't understand the power and the language of photographs. Mike's essay helps with that. It's a good read. Mike also mentions the great Czechoslovakian photographer, Josef Koudelka, who has long been one of my favorite imagemakers, certainly instrumental for me. 
My book, The New Road: I-26 and the Footprints of Progress in Appalachia, is available for purchase on my website. http://robamberg.com/bookstore/the-new-road

Click on individual pages for larger photographs and sharper text.


Ponders Chapel

I was thinking after my last post of the profane from the Old Jail, it would be good for balance to show a bit of the sacred.

Ponders Chapel, Marshall, Madison County, NC 2016

In the Old Jail

I spent some time these last two weeks with Josh Copus as he began demolition of the old county jail. The structure was built in 1906 and finally went out of commission in 2012 when Madison opened its new jail out on the Bypass. Josh, along with other partners, have renovation plans, perhaps a B&B, maybe a restaurant and bar. My interest was making photographs before any of the major destruction took place. Here is some of what I saw. More to come soon.


Moments of Clarity


Fireworks, Matt and Taylor's wedding, Old Ground Farm, Big Pine, Madison County, NC 2016

There was a moment in time recently when it hit me. I was at the Marshall Fashion show, photographing a swirling group of young people, modeling clothing made by other community members. So beautiful, and assured, and clearly in control. It was sweaty hot, the audience was packed, cheering wildly, moving too to Erich and Danni's driving beat. I thought, "I am really old and this is no longer my world."

I've had more than a few such moments of clarity lately; brief flashes of understanding in a world gripped by transition and disruption. As if to say, "So this is what the world will look like."

There was the bittersweet moment of Jamie's leaving. But, today, gone a week, he called and we chatted long, our normal weekly update for so long now.

The melancholy of my own children - the eldest clearly, and happily, on his own path in his own place. Child #2 taking the necessary steps we all know toward her own world. But me, thinking of times not long ago when it was the four of us here, always. And missing that.

Fay, the kindest of mothers-in-law, on her own journey, sometimes here, with us, but more often in her own world of increasing darkness.

The loss of relationships, once close, that have fallen victim to our disjointed times and a sense, an acceptance really, of who I am as a person. "How," I wonder, "did we ever stay friends so long?"

At Matt and Taylor's wedding party, it's light passing through a dress that first catches my eye. Like a moth, I'm drawn to such things. It blends with the flowing arc overhead, framing the music, highlighting the party. And then the gift arrives, the moment of clarity. It comes from stage left. Comfort for an old person that life will not only continue, but a particular community and way of life will also move forward.


At Matt and Taylor's wedding reception, Old Ground Farm, Big Pine, Madison County, NC 2016












A.J. Burnett, Marshall, Madison County, NC 2016


Taylor, Kate and Holly at the Fashion Show, Marshall, Madison County, NC 2016

Aunt Zip


Zipporah Chandler Rice, Rice Cove, Madison County, NC 1976

The Liston B. Ramsey Center at Mars Hill University will be hosting a celebration of the 100 year Anniversary of Cecil Sharp’s visit to Madison County in conjunction with the Bascom Lamar Lunsford Festival on October 1, 2016. Sharp, along with his assistant Maud Karpeles, was a musicologist from Great Britain who collected more ballads in Madison County for his classic volume, English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians, than anywhere in the United States. While in the Sodom community, he famously said, “I discovered that I could get what I wanted from pretty nearly everyone I met, young and old. In fact I found myself for the first time in my life in a community in which singing was as common and almost as universal as speaking.”

One of Sharp’s informants was Zipporah Chandler Rice who was an aunt of Dellie Norton, the protagonist of my 2002 book Sodom Laurel Album. Aunt Zip, as most everyone called her, was 98 years old when I met and photographed her in 1976 and had sung for Sharp in 1916 when she was about 36. At that point in her life, she didn’t have much memory of the man from across the water although Dellie and her older sister, Berzilla Wallin, certainly remembered him. Aunt Zip had fallen and broken her hip shortly after I met her and I recall thinking she wouldn’t be around much longer. Remarkably, she lived another five years, dying in 1981 at age 103.

The photograph above, along with others of mine, John Cohen's and David Holt's, will be on display with memorabilia documenting the ballad tradition in Madison County at the Weizenblatt Gallery at Mars Hill University. A ballad swap will begin at 3 pm on October 1 with a reception following at 5.

Zipporah Rice's grave, Rice Cove Cemetery,                   Madison County, NC 2013.


Traditions of Protest in North Carolina


Justice Rally, Lumberton, NC 1987

I will be participating in a truly unique exhibit and program organized by the North Carolina Folklore Society titled Traditions of Protest in North Carolina. The exhibit will hang in PB&Java in Greensboro, NC, from September 2 to October 2 with a special program on Saturday, September 10 at 10:30 am. The exhibit and program seeks to illustrate North Carolina's long and storied history of protest and resistance to racism, Jim Crow, and anti-union activity. 

In the mid-1980s I served on staff and as a contract photographer for the Rural Advancement Fund, a non-profit, farm advocacy organization based in Charlotte, North Carolina, with a field office in Pittsboro. RAF had many projects under its auspices, one of which was a Justice Project based in Lumberton, NC, which was organized to combat the systematic racism existing throughout Robeson County that resulted in the yet-unsolved murders of community members. My photographs in the exhibit are from two large rallies in Robeson County protesting these murders and the racism that brought them about.

While RAF published one or two of these photographs in their newsletters and brochures, the majority of them have never been published or exhibited. I'm honored to work with the North Carolina Folklore Society and their director, Joy Salyers, to bring these images to light. 

Funeral and Rally for Julian Pierce, a candidate for Superior Court Judge who was murdered in his home, Robeson County, NC 1988


Trail of Tears


Cherokee Stickball Player, at the First Cherokee Reunion, Red Clay, Tennessee, 1984

In 1984 I had the opportunity to photograph the first reunion between the Eastern and Western Bands of the Cherokee since the Trail of Tears in 1837. I was on assignment for the Durham-based weekly, The Independent, and working with the acclaimed North Carolina author, Bland Simpson. This photograph ran on the cover.

In July of this year, my long-time friend and collaborator, Charlie Thompson, and I took a scouting trip in north Georgia, east Tennessee and western North Carolina with a thought of a modern-day project on the Trail of Tears. After four days of unrelenting heat, we found many signs and remnants - museums, interpretive centers, and historical markers - in places such as New Echota, Blythe Ferry, and Ross's Landing. We saw few Cherokee. Land that had once been the homeland of thousands of Cherokee (considered the first of the "civilized" tribes), illegally stolen, had been transformed into small towns, fast food restaurants, and modern highways.

We drove to Red Clay,  which was the last site of the capital of Cherokee Nation before their forced removal. There, unbeknown to us, the Cherokee were celebrating their 32nd Tribal Reunion. Singing, dancing, food, crafts, a wonderful Cherokee storyteller, Fred Bradley, whose wife, Dovie, shared water and peaches with us. 

Fancy Dancing, 32nd Cherokee Tribal Reunion, Red Clay, Tennessee, 2016

At Blythe Ferry, Tennessee, we found the Cherokee Removal Memorial Park. Here, over 9,000 Cherokee and Creek who had been stockaded for weeks, were forced onto flatboats across the Tennessee River to begin their trek westward to Indian Territory in what is now northeast Oklahoma. Together, Charlie and I were struck by the symbolism of this spot. The native peoples, one foot on their homeland, the other stepping onto these boats, knowing in their hearts they would never touch that land again.

There, we met a young white woman. She was fleeing an abusive partner. Distraught, her arms bruised, she had left with no money or food. She had taken one of the boyfriend's cars, replete with a rebel flag front license plate, and just started driving, seeking water she said, cleansing, and wound up in this holiest of Cherokee sacred places. She had performed a self-baptism in the river and emerged wet and talkative. We gave her our food and our ears, advice from fathers of children her age. She drove off, to a place and a life unknown to her. Perhaps, we thought, this is the present day story of the Trail of Tears.

Cherokee Removal Memorial Park, Blythe Ferry, Tennessee 2016




The New Road


JD Thomas Walking Away from his Burning Home Place, Sprinkle Creek, Madison County, NC 1997

I know while JD's momma was still at home, after his dad died, I said, 'Momma, what if that road comes through your land?' And she said, 'Aw, woman. It'll never change. It'll never happen. We'll never have a road like that; it'll never be. I'm not worried about it.' It's just unreal. We used to walk over all those hills. We used to go after school and on the weekends, and we'd walk all the way to Big Knob. We'd play, and we'd go up in the fields and pick apples and grapes and all that stuff off the farm. It never even dawned on me that this was going to happen to that place. He won't admit this, but I knew that night they burned the house I could see tears. It hurt him. It really did.
                                                              Lela Thomas, Sprinkle Creek
                                                              - from The New Road: I-26 and the Footprints of Progress in Appalachia 


The New Road: I-26 and the Footprints of Progress in Appalachia will soon be out of print. This is Book Two of my proposed trilogy of books from Madison County. The book uses photographs, oral histories and narrative writing to tell the detailed story of the largest earth-moving project in North Carolina history. If you have yet to add this book to your collection, now is the time to do so. I will gladly sign and inscribe as you wish. Go to robamberg.com/store for information.


People recently in my life


Top Left, Cherokee Storyteller, Fred Bradley, Red Clay, Tennessee.
Top Right, Ballad Singer, Melanie Rice Penland, Sodom, Madison County, NC.
Bottom Left, Aniera Ayanakai Brzinski Sleeping on our couch, PawPaw, Madison County, NC.
Bottom Right, Jazz Keyboardist and Sax Player, Steve Davidowski, Anderson Branch, Madison County, NC.

Throughout my life I have had the good fortune to come in contact with and count as friends an amazing group of individuals. Here are four such people who have recently graced my world. Thank you all. You've made my life richer.