Dellie Feeding


Noted balladeer, Dellie Norton, Feeding Her Pets, Sodom, Madison County, NC 1975

Beginning October 1, and running throughout the month, Mars Hill University will be hosting a celebration to recognize the 100 year anniversary of Cecil Sharp's arrival in Madison County. Sharp was a British musicologist who came to Madison searching for ballads that had origins in the British Isles. He found more ballads, and singers of ballads, in our county than any other place in the country.

The ballad tradition is alive and thriving in Madison County. The University will be hosting an exhibit in Weizenblatt Gallery that looks at Sharp's legacy in the county. Artifacts, photographs, memorabilia, sound stations will be on display. An opening reception and ballad swap, which is a long-standing tradition at the Bascom Lamar Lunsford Festival, will take place in the gallery, beginning at 5 p.m. The Ballad Swap will feature singers who are descendants of the people Sharp collected from, some of them are 8th generation singers. Please join us for this remembrance of a very significant piece of Madison County History.



Debbie and Dellie


Debbie Chandler brushing her grandmother's, Dellie Norton, hair, Sodom, Madison County, North Carolina, 1991


I've been thinking a lot about Dellie .
I'm not sure why today.
Most days I see photographs of her hanging in my studio
so it's not like she isn't around. She is.
But for some reason, today, she's popped in my mind and stayed. 
I'm fine with that.

This photograph was made about two years before she died.
She had been in declining health for a couple of years prior.
Here, after a stay in the hospital, back home,
with family members taking turns in her care.

Perhaps that's why she's stayed with me today.
Because of our own situation caring for Leslie's mom.
Watching her age, needing more and more, 
content to sit and be quiet.
Me knowing, it won't be long. 


At the Hancock Shaker Village, Pittsfield, MA


P:ittsfield, MA, 2015

click to enlarge photograph

These rules certainly wouldn't fly around our house, except maybe the one about eating everything on your plate. We do like that idea although we sometimes overlook it, as when my mother-in-law leaves uneaten any onions or mushrooms she finds in the food. She simply hates onions and mushrooms remind her of liver, which she also hates. But we won't wake you at 6:30 for breakfast, won't restrict your visit to a few hours, and will allow you to sleep with the opposite sex. A rule the Shakers probably wish they could re-visit. And even tobacco is okay, not in the house, but around the place. So, come visit and as my friend Dellie would say, "just stay all night."


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.

Melanie and the Jumping Cat


Melanie and the Jumping Cat, Sodom, Madison County, NC 1975


I hadn’t seen Melanie Rice Penland in some time before running into her, her husband Nate, and their son Ezra at a party a couple of weeks ago. Seeing her reminded me of a photograph I made almost forty years ago. Melanie’s mom, Sheila Kay Adams, had taken me up to Dellie Norton’s house for the first of my many visits with Dellie and her family. Sheila had her young daughter with her and I was immediately smitten. Melanie had a presence even then at three or four years old. Direct, bold, and self-assured.

Children are among the hardest subjects for photographers. It’s relatively easy to picture youguns as cute and playful, the apples of our eyes. And they seem to know exactly how we want them to look - endearing, irresistible, and ultimately cute. But making an image that gets beyond the smiling superficialities and into the heart of the child is a different matter. In this case Melanie, with her open and patient gaze, made it easy.

Hero - Doug Wallin

Doug Wallin, Folk Festival, Cullowhee, North Carolina

Doug Wallin, Folk Festival, Cullowhee, North Carolina

It’s hard to think of Doug Wallin and not smile. One of my first times around him, I helped him and his brother Jack hang tobacco in the barn next to their cabin on Crain Branch. Doug was high in the barn, moving between the top two tier poles. I was new to the work and he didn't want me handling the heavy sticks of burley while up too high in the barn. After we got into a rhythm with the passing of the tobacco, Doug began singing. His voice echoed from the tin roof and filled the barn with his unique soft voice, eloquent phrasing and unaffected style. It gave me goosebumps and made me smile back then and does the same thing now as I write about it.

Doug always made me smile. He was a bit of a jokester and player of pranks as his father, Lee Wallin, was noted to be. He had a song to fit most any occasion and reputedly knew over 300 ballads and songs. Doug could be cantankerous and suspicious and he didn't suffer fools or what he perceived as disrespect. When his mind was made up about something or someone, he wouldn't change it. He would quickly drop an offender from his life. He was an incredibly gifted singer, many say the best Madison County has ever produced.

I was fortunate in that Doug’s mother Berzilla, Dellie Norton's 83 year old sister, really liked me. Her daughter Berthie once said her mother used to daydream about me, which I find amazing and flattering given our 55 year age difference. As is the case in any community that celebrates family as Madison County does, my relationship with Berzilla carried over to Doug and over the years we grew fond and comfortable with each other.

Years later, after Berzilla died, and Jack was needing increased attention at the VA Hospital in Asheville, the brothers moved to a small apartment near the Marshall bypass. As much as I loved spending time at the cabin, listening to music and stories, eating, working, sitting on their porch, my favorite memory is from the time when they were living in town.


Doug Playing Fiddle for Kate, Crain Branch, Madison County, North Carolina, 1992

I stopped at Ingles on the way home today. I had Benny and Kate with me and walking through the canned food aisle we ran into Doug and Jack who were doing their weekly shopping. We visited for a time and talked briefly of their lives in town. I begged off, needing to get the kids home and fed, and told them I’d come by soon for a visit. As we turned to go, Doug and Jack both reached into their pants pockets and pulled out their wallets. They each found two one-dollar bills and ceremoniously presented one to each of the kids - a gesture so stunning in its simplicity and sheer goodwill.


A Tale of Two Pictures


I went to a benefit for Donnie Norton a couple of weeks ago at the Walnut Fire Department out on Hwy. 25-70, west of Marshall. Donnie has had some serious health issues over the last couple of years and had to retire from his job as an asphalt roller with APAC.  I’ve known Donnie and his family since 1975 - he is one of Dellie Norton’s great-grandchildren - and I knew everyone would be comfortable with me making photographs.

I especially wanted to make photographs of Donnie with his grandson Elijah, which I did. I was thinking to do a pretty standard portrait, framed tightly with little or no background, both people looking straight into the camera. I was shooting with my digital Canon SLR.

This first photograph is close to ideal – proud grandfather securely holding his tentative grandson. Donnie is a big, broad man, but my distance from him and the focal length of the lens keep him from seeming imposing. It’s a warm image, in both tone and feeling. It’s happy and optimistic and consistent with a classic genre of photographs. It’s been done millions of times and most of us have similar images in our scrapbooks or on our Facebook pages. I knew the family would love it, and they did.

Those situations usually demand a series of exposures. Facial expressions, especially with children, change so quickly that a photographer will generally not rely on a single image. He wants a number of pictures to look at before he chooses the best one. That was my situation with Donnie and Elijah. Eleven frames later, probably less than two minutes, I made this second photograph, which has a totally different feel than the first one.

The obvious difference is I chose to present this second one in black and white. Stripped of the warmth and distraction of the color, the photograph is all emotion. I got closer and tighter, which immediately makes Donnie appear larger than life. With a small tilt of his head, a slightly different camera angle, and dead seriousness of his eyes, he appears ominous. Elijah, sans pacifier, has evolved from tentative to fearful and his grandfather, while still in the same secure posture, now seems to be protecting his grandson from an imminent threat.

What interests me is the camera’s ability to fashion the message from a picture. Virtually nothing had changed about the emotion of the situation from one image to the next. Yet, with only minor alterations in technique and camera placement, a radically different storyline develops, one more powerful and ambivilent than the first. 

We like to think the camera doesn’t lie and I think there is truth to that statement. But I also believe a picture is worth a thousand words and oftentimes those words can be contradictory, not necessarily truthful, or complete regarding any particular situation. 


Isaac and Robbie Gunter

I was introduced to the Sodom community of Madison County by Sheila Kay Adams. Sheila was a student at Mars Hill College back in 1975 and I had just begun working at the newly established photo archive at the college. I remember speaking with Sheila about the difficulty gaining access to a small mountain community where I could hang out and make pictures. Sheila offered to take me to her home community of Sodom to meet her great aunt, Dellie Chandler Norton. It would prove to be an offer that would irrevocably change my life and influence everything I’ve done since.

Isaac and Robbie Gunter and their son working tobacco, Sodom, Madison County, NC, 1975.

On our first trip to Sodom together, we passed an older couple and a young man working in a tobacco patch. The older man was plowing the clean and elegant rows with a horse. The other two people were hoeing and pulling the loose, freshly plowed soil around each individual plant. There wasn’t a weed to be seen and the deep green plants were thriving from the personal attention.

Lacking self-confidence and any understanding of local mores, I never would have stopped had I been on my own. But Sheila was the perfect bridge. She knew Isaac and Robbie Gunter and after introducing me and explaining who I was and what I was doing, they readily agreed to pose for photographs. 

Isaac and Robbie Gunter, Sodom, Madison County, NC, 1975.

Seen from the eyes of a young documentarian thirty-eight years ago  - someone new to the community, coming from a very different place, who didn’t yet know the importance of spending time with people - the photographs felt like wary introductions when I made them. I knew they were nice portraits, but formal and static. They lacked the energy and movement I wanted in my photographs back then and the images never made it beyond the contact sheets.

But a photograph’s meaning can change for all of us over time. Looking at these photographs now with the eyes of someone much older – as old as the Gunters were when I made their pictures - I see something different. I see two people comfortably presenting themselves to the camera in a relaxed and open manner. I see people assured in their posture and confident in who they are. I see the strength and grace in their life-worn faces and hands. And what I once perceived as a formal introduction, I now recognize as a personal invitation into their world.

Robbie's Memorial built by her son Michael, and Isaac and Robbie's Grave and Marker,

Sodom, Madison County, NC, 2013.

Portrait of Liz Franklin

I made this photograph in 1975, less than two years after my arrival in Madison County. I had gone with Dellie, and her sister Berzilla, to visit an old friend of Berzilla’s named Ernie Franklin who lived in the small community of Chapel Hill in the county. She knew him from the older days, when her husband Lee was alive and they would regularly make music in the community. Ernie played fiddle and banjo and also made instruments and tools. She didn’t know where he lived exactly, but they figured we’d find him.

After some asking around and missed turns, we turning onto a dirt track, passed a broad empty pasture, and into a hollar with nice southern exposure. Soon, we came to a small cluster of buildings – a house with a thin smoke coming from a stone chimney, the remains of the old house with wood shingles, now used for storage, and I think a small barn. 


A small, wiry man came out of the house. Ernie Franklin. After he and Berzilla got re-acquainted, he invited us in to meet his mother who also lived there. With winter approaching, Liz Franklin was soon going to live with her daughter in Asheville, and once inside the house, you realized how tough it would be for an older, frail, person. There was no indoor plumbing. An outhouse. Heat came from a fireplace and coal stove set in the middle of a small room. No electricity – light came from oil lamps.  This was how she was raised and lived most of her life, and you could sense she didn't want to leave. Years of hard work showed in her face and hands, but she clearly wouldn’t last through a hard season.

I haven’t shown or exhibited this photograph very much over the years. Initially, I loved it. It seemed to embody a romantic notion of place and people for me - tough, resilient, wizened, looking to the light, and seeing a past. But with more time in the community, I began to understand those heroic characteristics were largely coming from me and less so the people themselves. People like Dellie, who had lived hard lives, knew there was little of the romantic about it. So, I put the photograph away and published another from the same visit in my book.


But I’ve re-visited the first photograph in recent months, initially as part of digitizing my negative files, and then because I realized I still love the portrait. Thirty-eight years after the image was made, I can look at her face and see an idealized, noble rendering that fits neatly into a specific stereotype of place. But now, I can also see that her look is true.