University of North Carolina Press, 166 pp., $45
Reminiscent of Walker Evans' photographs in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Rob Amberg's Sodom Laurel Album is a photographic record of his time spent in Madison County, N.C. Amberg arrived in 1973 after living in Washington, D.C., looking for a simpler life, but also seeking a way to capture the essence of a culture that was already beginning to wane. Shelia Kay Rice, a student at Mars Hill College, introduced Amberg to her aunt, Dellie Chandler Norton when she discovered that he was looking for access to a mountain community that would allow him entry to its people and culture.
Focusing mostly on the 76-year-old Norton and her adopted son, Junior, Sodom Laurel Album is much more than a collection of evocative photographs of poverty and hardship. By combining Amberg's personal journals with the various reminiscences of Sodom Laurel citizens, we are presented with a moving testament to a style of life that is rapidly becoming extinct.
Reading the recollections of Norton, we quickly realize that life in the mountains was incredibly difficult, a style that most of us can neither understand nor relate to. The main form of employment was independent tobacco farming, a grueling struggle with the earth where an entire season's crop could be destroyed in a matter of weeks. People lived a hardscrabble existence, scratching out a livelihood, but they also reaped the rewards of a life that seemed somewhat purer, less complicated. Family and friends were the backbone of the community, entertainment came in the form of singing and playing music, while various roots and herbs brought people back to health.
Interspersed throughout, Amberg's photographs provide their own haunting narrative. We are given first-hand glimpses of Norton and her family, images that palpably strike a resonating chord of emotion. Through these pictures Amberg makes us bear witness to a life that seems impossibly foreign: the barren simplicity of Norton's house, the backbreaking intensity of harvesting tobacco, the anxiety of going to market, the basic joy of family gatherings. These photographs supply us with an entry to a hidden world, a part of America that seems as foreign as various Third World countries.
Accompanying the book is a CD of selected mountain songs and oral histories. Norton and several other Sodom Laurel folk sing almost forgotten ballads and songs, thus making this book a true treat for the senses. You can hear the sounds of both joy and dread in these songs as they relate stories of lost love, happy drunks and melancholy wanderers. This recording gives us an incredible opportunity to appreciate and understand the history and manners of a dignified people.
Rob Amberg has managed to produce an extraordinary account that speaks volumes not only about the people of Madison County, but gives us a caring and unforgettable portrait of Dellie Norton, an extraordinary woman that lived a life filled with kindness and insight. Sodom Laurel Album is a truly amazing work with a vision that approaches genius. For a sample of the book, check www.uncpress.unc.edu/amberg.
Rob Amberg will also be making several local appearances around the Triangle. A book signing and discussion will be held on Wednesday, April 30, 6-9 p.m. at the Center for Documentary Studies, 1317 W. Pettigrew Street, Durham. 660-3663. A reception with live music will follow. (Visit http://cds.aas.duke.edu/ for details on the July 11 closing celebration.)
Also of interest is the Thursday, May 15 lecture: "Voices from the Fields, Voices from the Factories: Performances and Conversations about Tobacco in North Carolina."
Experience the voices and sounds from North Carolina's tobacco past, and learn how tobacco farms are facing the future. Included are performances and presentations on women and tobacco farming, manufacturing, tobacco auctions and music, and sustainable farming. at 7 p.m., in CDS Auditorium. (The exhibition runs through July 12.)