On a lettuce farm in the hills of North Carolina, a groggy boy stood on a chair. His father, John Rosenthal, had woken him early to take his photo in the morning fog. The boy stretched his arms out wide and looked down into the kudzu-covered valley below. It was the summer of 1979.
"I wanted to get a sense of this growing boy in an atmosphere that was just as dynamic," Rosenthal says. He sees acceptance in the photo, as if the boy and his environment were "up for life"—which they certainly were. Although Rosenthal didn't know it at the time, this would become one of his best-known pieces. Part of the North Carolina Museum of Art's permanent collection, it's currently on view in Panorama: North Carolina, an exhibit of black-and-white photos taken in the state by local photographers. In more than thirty photos, the exhibit surveys the changes that have swept across rural North Carolina, casting light on an Old North State that seems in the perennial process of vanishing.
"I was perfectly aware from a fairly early age that old North Carolina was disappearing pretty quickly," says Rosenthal, who has lived here since 1960. "It certainly hasn't disappeared yet, and it probably won't ever disappear completely."
The power of Panorama is that these photographers were looking at contemporary lifestyles they knew intimately, in the present tense, sharply contrasting with nostalgic commercial images of fields and barns. They sought honest, not simply picturesque, representations of the state.
But what is old North Carolina? Well, it's not something with a single definition. It isn't one lifestyle, area, or ideology. Instead, it's an ineffable nostalgia. It's revisiting that Main Street coffee shop, using a worn-out map, eating a home-cooked meal. It's the way home used to smell, feel, and sound.
For photographer Rob Amberg, that means dirt roads, rural mailboxes, and, most vividly, tobacco leaves hanging in a worn barn. These things are plentiful in Madison County, North Carolina, where Amberg lives. There, the main points of interest are hiking trails and the tiny town of Marshall, but these are not subjects Amberg photographs much anymore.
Amberg says it can be easy for a photographer to be seduced by nostalgic representations of North Carolina, ones that deny what it is today. Twenty years ago, when he took photos of barns, their purpose was to dry tobacco or house animals, not to simply look beautifully decayed. The photos represented life as it was lived at the time.
"The Old North State is changing," he says. "I think that the representations really need to be changing with it. We need to be looking at what we have become now. Some of which is better, some of which is proving to be really questionable, I think."
Amberg captured the dirt road in his photograph "On the Road to Robert and Jane's House" while he was actually on the road to Robert and Jane's house. It was a scenic road he often walked on, not one he glimpsed from the highway and decided to photograph. What, after all, is the purpose of photographing something no one uses? A barn might sit on a sunny patch of land with a couple of dairy cows under the afternoon sun, but the lifestyle associated with the image is more sentimental than authentic because rural communities like Amberg's no longer farm the way they once did.
As factory farming populates the South and the classic family farm subsides, documentary photography must evolve, too. Amberg's photo "Estate Auction," not included in Panorama, illustrates the point. In it, a farmer holds up a painting of an old barn that is about to be auctioned along with the farmstead, capturing a reality in which family plots are giving way to company-owned industrial barns—a reality hidden in photos of a more idyllic nature.
Panorama truthfully and intimately looks at what the Old North State was and is. In Amberg's photo "Jim and Jenny Sledding," a father and daughter charge downhill on a sled with a dog chasing behind. The slight blur makes it feel like looking at something beautiful that is about to disappear. A similar sense of evanescence is captured in Elizabeth Matheson's "Wilson, North Carolina," which shows an apocalyptic thunderstorm descending on two mirror-image homes. And "Edenton," taken from the back porch of a home overlooking the water, feels less like a photo on the wall of a museum than a scene you are about to enter.
The North Carolina state motto could easily double as a motto for documentary photography: "To be, rather than to seem." With images ranging from highway signs to roadside watermelon salesmen, the photos in Panorama rise to the occasion. It's their authenticity, not their aesthetics, that makes them beautiful.
This article appeared in print with the headline "To Be, Rather Than to Seem."