Once Upon a Time 

Photographer Rob Amberg records a disappearing existence.

Art6’s current “Sodom Laurel Album” features Rob Amberg’s long-term photography project undertaken in Reese, N.C. Known as Sodom Laurel to its residents (apparently once the community was occupied by folks who had too much time and money on their hands), it sits within rugged mountains that have kept modernity at bay. Now impoverished and isolated, Sodom Laurel’s dark hollows seem only to be illuminated, as Amberg chronicles it, by its residents’ wills to survive.

Emblematic of the mountain life are Dellie Chandler Norton, a storyteller, singer and tobacco farmer, who was 76 when the project started, and her adopted son Junior. Photographs Amberg took of the two describe lives knotted to the land. In every shot, whether working, playing, or resting, Dellie and Junior appear to be almost swallowed by their surroundings. Hills fold around them like capes, tobacco plants dwarf them, fog engulfs them. Yet Amberg finds resolve in his subjects’ faces and gestures and in the poetry of the surroundings.

Amberg’s Sodom Laurel, foreign as its landscape and culture are to most viewers, appeals for its haunting beauty as much as for its strangeness. Through Amberg’s lens, workhorses, tobacco fields and buck dancers take on heroic qualities tied not only to Appalachian tradition but to ancient legends. In one of his many images of Junior, Amberg captures his subject seated against a dark monolith with openings and ledges that form facelike features that fill the frame. In another image Amberg shoots Junior handling a large workhorse just as the creature stirs, creating a contrast of power against Junior’s vulnerability. In both pictures, Junior’s supernatural surroundings take on mythic qualities and transform him from mountain farmer to prince.

The last photograph in the exhibition pictures Dellie in her casket — an image that seems to symbolize not only the passing of Amberg’s friend and principal subject but the end of his project in Sodom Laurel, and perhaps even the death of the community’s culture. But while “Sodom Laurel Album” certainly works to document a dying way of life, it never presents itself as preachy. Amberg’s eye remains fresh and curious even at the end of the two decades he has spent working on this project. Artful and mesmerizing, his interpretation of Sodom Laurel invites us to occupy the inside for a while, and because of that, Rob Amberg fits with the best of the photojournalists. S

“Sodom Laurel Album” runs through July 31 at Art6, 6 E. Broad St.

Sodom Laurel resident, ballad singer, banjo player, storyteller and Appalachian humorist Sheila Kay Adams, who is also the grandniece of Dellie Norton, will be performing at Art6 on Wednesday, June 2, at 8 p.m. Tickets: $5 at the door. For more information go to www.art6.org.

Amberg will be speaking at Art6 on July 16 with Virginia photographer Jesse Andrews. Andrews has also extensively photographed a tobacco town and the two will share their experiences.

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