Rob Amberg documents Madison County in the Appalachian region of North Carolina, where he has lived since the 1970s. After graduating with a degree in personnel management from the University of Dayton in Ohio, he moved to this remote area at a time when many individuals were relocating to rural communities from cities as part of the Back-to-the-Land movement. These adherents rejected the trappings of modern capitalist consumer culture to grow their own food and live independently off small plots of land. Amberg is currently working on Little Worlds, his third book of photographs documenting Madison County. His previous publications include Sodom Laurel Album (2002), a collection of images depicting the North Carolina rural community of the title and its rich music and tobacco history, and The New Road: I-26 and the Footprints of Progress in Appalachia (2009), which documents the construction of a nine-mile section of interstate highway through the changing rural Madison County. Amberg has received awards from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, among many others. He has served as a Visiting Artist and Visiting Instructor at Duke University, Durham, and his work is included in the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Renwick Gallery, both in Washington, D.C.; the North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh; and the Asheville Art Museum, North Carolina.
A conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, Amberg was initially motivated to take photographs by his involvement in social action work, specifically the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s, and his feeling that photography could initiate social change. Sensitive to stereotypes of Southern Appalachia, Amberg seeks out images that present a nuanced representation of the people of his adopted home. He sees Madison County, a rural community of around 20,000, as open, accepting, focused on its residents, and growing in diversity. In addition to those born in the area, its population includes a mix of old and new back-to-the-landers, veterans, artists, young professionals, retirees, and so on.
Kelsey Herding Sheep, PawPaw, Madison County, North Carolina (2014), for example, shows a young back-to-the-lander walking out of the woods with her sheep dog, emerging in a stream of light. She has just gathered the herd that crowds the foreground of the image. With her tank top revealing her long, muscular, tattooed arms, Kelsey presents as both a strong agricultural worker and a countercultural proponent.
The title of Amberg’s current book project, Little Worlds, refers to Madison County as a place where people can seek refuge from mainstream society, away from the capitalist state. Madison County is a place where people may seek a life off the grid, connected to one another and to the land. He approaches this community not as an outsider but as a member. Many of the people in his photographs are his friends and neighbors. In At Cricket’s Birthday Party, Big Pine, Madison County, North Carolina (2011), he invites us to share in the experiences of the tribe. Amberg’s composition places us right across the table from partygoers digging into roasted pig with their fingers. The subjects are clearly at ease with the photographer and his camera. We have full view of the still-steaming feast and intimate access to the social celebration, as if we were one of the invited guests. Amberg’s images offer viewers a chance to imagine a close-knit community and an alternative lifestyle connected to the land, removed from the pervasive influence of contemporary media and technology.