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Sodom Laurel Album takes its name from an isolated North Carolina mountain-hollow community of ramshackle homesteads, deteriorating barns, worn-out tobacco fields, and tough, "ordinary" people.
Rob Amberg could have breezed in for a photo-shoot, taken a few stereotypical or even romanticized shots of the poor and simple, and been on his way. Instead, he moved in, stayed for twenty-five years, and is still there. The result is a remarkably intimate portrait of plain people, who, through Amberg, become multidimensional and fascinating. Sodom Laurel Album is part picture album, part story-book told in the subjects' own words coupled with Amberg's insightful and sometimes humorous angle on this world and his role in it, and part music album—the "book" contains a fine CD with traditional songs authentically performed by residents of the community (mostly recorded by Emory University folklorist Allen Tullos in the 1970s).
The book is not focused on the whole of this pin-prick of a community in the Appalachians as much as it is on Dellie Norton (who died in 1993 at the age of ninety-four) and "Junior," her burly, occasionally difficult, developmentally disabled, adopted son. In Sodom Laurel Album, Dellie and Junior talk about family, work, and community, and come alive through a collection of absolutely captivating black-and-white photographs made by Amberg over nearly a quarter-century.
Dellie Norton was a subsistence farmer who hacked out a rather meager material existence with a garden, a small plot of tobacco, a milk cow, and a little help from Junior and the larger community. A British "ethnomusicologist" touring the area in the early 1900s found "a community in which singing was as common and almost as universal as speaking." Dellie sang, as many still do, to pass the time. It was one of the few available and affordable forms of entertainment in a [End Page 106] country unblemished with electric lines or telephones until the 1950s. Amberg found his way to this world and to Dellie through what might have seemed a series of "wrong turns" for a college-educated boy from Washington. Thank God for twenty-five-year detours.
Click for larger view
| Figure 1 |
"Junior and Pet, 1978." Copyright Rob Amberg. From Sodom Laurel Album, by Rob Amberg, University of North Carolina Press, 2002. Published in association with the Center for Documentary Studies. A Lyndhurst Book.
You will not have seen photographs like Amberg's before. These images capture something difficult to describe in words. Intimacy? Complexity? Warmth? Even the combination is inadequate. Unconsciously, I found myself studying many of the photographs, imagining stories behind them, allowing myself to be transported through layers of emotion into the lost world they reveal. I would not have thought it possible.
The unrivaled power and fascination of these photographs must derive in part from the fact that Amberg became a real part of the community and family he photographed. Sodom Laurel Album is what happens when one of the country's finest photographers (a Guggenheim Fellow) spends two decades with a handful of people. Becomes a neighbor. Works with them in the tobacco fields. Eats and sleeps with them. Listens to their stories and participates in the banter about daily life. Experiences both the kindness and pettiness of the community. Attends weddings and funerals. Passes time on the front porch. Then, lovingly crafts a book of photographs, reminiscences, and music to tell a rich and personal story.
After a day of thumbing through the book's photographs, I read Sodom Laurel Album's text, finishing in two intense sittings. The last time I felt such awe and astonishment while holding a book, it was a biography of Charles Darwin and his daughter Annie written by Darwin's great-great-grandson. But in that case, my sense of wonder was directed more towards Darwin himself than the author. In Sodom Laurel Album, Rob Amberg takes a...