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Dispatches from the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Duke University
Updated: 1 hour 7 min ago

Rob Amberg: Forty Years in Appalachia

Tue, 11/10/2015 - 18:52
Joyce Chandler, Joe Ross Chandler’s wife, 1976.*
Copyright, Rob Amberg

Rob Amberg journeyed to the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina during the height of the back-to-land movement.  It was a time when hippies and artists took John Prine’s advice and “blew up [their] TVs, threw away [their] papers, went to the country, and built [them] a house.” All kinds of folks retreated to the mountains back then, and Amberg arrived in 1973 with the suspicious title of documentary photographer.

Tillman Chandler’s barn and tobacco crop, 1975.
Copyright, Rob Amberg

I say suspicious because Appalachia has been a favorite testing ground for ambitious artists for more than a century.  These artists, documentarians, and musicologists act as arbiters and preservationists for what they view as culturally interesting and valuable, and Madison County in particular, where Amberg found himself and where I grew up, is not always portrayed in a nuanced light.

Joe Ross Chandler and Bobby Cantrell, 1977.
Copyright, Rob Amberg.

It’s easy though for artists to fall into the trap of reproducing certain convenient and sometimes sensational tropes.  My personal favorite is the proliferation of snake handler portraits.  A recent comment on a Vice Magazine series called “Two Days in Appalachia,” a series that provoked much conversation and criticism, pointed out that “poverty porn” has been a long standing tradition of documentary artists creating work from the Appalachian region.  So, yes, I think it’s fair to initially approach any stranger with a camera in the mountains with suspicion.

The first picture I made of Junior, 1975.
Copyright, Rob Amberg

All of this is to say that Rob Amberg has created a complex, beautiful, and compassionate body of work. Of the many aspects of his work that I find remarkable, I will mention two here:  first, when he moved to Madison County in 1973, he came to stay.  His photographs, whether documenting the small community of Sodom Laurel, the expansion of I-26, or the continual influx of new people, follow long-term changes in the landscape, a landscape that he calls a shatter zone.  Amberg defines a shatter zone this way:

Shatter zone is an 18th-century term that refers to an area of fissured or cracked rock that forms a network of veins that are often filled with mineral deposits. The phrase took on new meaning after World War II when anthropologists and political scientists began using it to speak of borderlands. In this modern definition shatter zones are places of refuge from, and resistance to, capitalist economies, state making, and state rule. Appalachia and Madison County have always fit that definition.

At Cricket’s birthday party, Big Pine, 2011.
Copyright, Rob Amberg. I-26 at Buckner Gap, Madison County, N.C. 2008.
Copyright, Rob Amberg.

For four decades, Amberg has acted as a witness and interpreter of both the visible and invisible fissures of a changing landscape, and he has captured moments that could not be experienced, let alone appreciated, by someone who was merely passing through.  When viewing his photographs, I often ask myself, how did he get there?  He got there because he has dedicated the majority of his life to being in Madison County.

J.D. Thomas walking away from his burning home place, Sprinkle Creek, Madison County, N.C., 1997.
Copyright, Rob Amberg

The second aspect of his work that greatly interests me, which is related to the longitudinal nature of his project, is Amberg’s own increasingly entangled role in the community.  Once, over lunch, Amberg and I talked about all the goings on in Madison County, and it became clear that he knew more about the land and the people than I did.  I was born and raised there, but I left when I was sixteen and now live in Hillsborough.  As I have become more of an outsider to the community, Amberg’s intimacy with the land and people continues to grow.  And as this intimacy grows, he becomes more implicated in the narratives that he weaves, in the lives that he portrays.  And, curiously, as his subjects view his work, they are informed and changed by the stories he tells.  All is changing as the work goes on.

Ben Amberg, Rob’s son, with Dellie and Junior, 1982.
Copyright, Rob Amberg Junior playing with my daughter Kate, 1992.
Copyright, Rob Amberg

To me, Amberg’s photographs are one continuous conversation.  I keep going back to them; they keep speaking to one another and to me.  It’s an amazing time to be able to view his work, in medias res.  In fact, I’ve never quite had this kind of experience with an artist, one who so profoundly shapes my view of the place I grew up.  It’s my hope that he continues to work for many years, and I am excited to follow his efforts as he contributes his photographs and papers to the Rubenstein Library.

Isaac Gunter’s tobacco bed and cemetery, 1982.
Copyright, Rob Amberg. Migrant farmworker cutting and spudding tobacco, 1993.
Copyright, Rob Amberg New condominiums at the Wolf Ridge Resort. Upper Laurel, Madison County, N.C., 2007.
Copyright, Rob Amberg

As an addendum, I should mention that Amberg’s photographs reach well beyond Appalachia, and you can follow his current projects on his blog:  Also, you can view the collection guide to learn more about the Rubenstein Library’s holdings.

*I have kept Amberg’s original captions, which reveal a glimmer of how he views the photographs, the people, and the land.


Post contributed by Laurin Penland, Research Services Assistant. 


The post Rob Amberg: Forty Years in Appalachia appeared first on The Devil's Tale.

2015 Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel Visiting Visiting Artist: Nate Larson

Mon, 10/19/2015 - 20:00
Reception & Artist’s Talk Date: November 5 Time: 6:00-8:00 pm Location: Center for Documentary Studies, 1317 W. Pettigrew St, Durham, NC

In October 2015, the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library will welcome Nate Larson as the second Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel Visiting Artist. Named in honor of Dr. Diamonstein-Spielvogel, a prolific author, interviewer, curator, and champion of the arts, this new artist-in-residence program provides an extended opportunity for an artist to study and engage with archival, manuscript and other special collections in support of developing a new body of creative work.

Nate Larson is a contemporary artist working with photographic media, artist books and digital video. His projects have been widely shown across the US and internationally as well as featured in numerous publications and media outlets, including Wired Raw File, The Picture Show from NPR, Slate, CNN, Hyperallergic, Gizmodo, Buzzfeed News, Vice Magazine, the New York Times Lens Blog, Flavorwire, the BBC News Viewfinder, Frieze Magazine, the British Journal of Photography, The Washington Post, and Art Papers. His artwork is included in the collections of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, the Orlando Museum of Art, Portland Art Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, the Center for Photography at Woodstock, and the Museum of Contemporary Photography Chicago. Additionally, Larson holds a full‐time academic appointment in the photography department at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore and chaired the 2014 national conference of the Society for Photographic Education.

Larson will be in residence at the Rubenstein Library October 26-November 22, 2015.  During this time, Larson will meet with scholars, students and staff from across the academic disciplines at Duke and conduct his own research. Larson will give an Artist’s Talk about his work to date at the Center for Documentary Studies on November 5, 2015 from 6:00-8:00pm.

The event is free and open to the public and made possible through the generous support of Dr. Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel. Larson’s visit is jointly organized and sponsored by the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, the Center for Documentary Studies, and the Master of Fine Arts in Experimental and Documentary Arts Program at Duke University.

Contact – Lisa McCarty,

Image below by Nate Larson & Marni Shindelman from the series Geolocation


Post submitted by Lisa McCarty, Curator, Archive of Documentary Arts

The post 2015 Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel Visiting Visiting Artist: Nate Larson appeared first on The Devil's Tale.

Screamfest III: The Cutening

Mon, 10/12/2015 - 15:10

Date: Thursday, October 29, 2015
Time: 2:00-4:00 PM
Location: Holsti-Anderson Family Assembly Room
Contact: Amy McDonald,

Y’all, we hear you. The semester is getting more and more intense and sometimes Duke is just so . . . gothic, you know? Sometimes you just need to eat some free candy and look at cute things. And what better time to do that than in celebration of that traditionally cute holiday, Halloween?

Your cuddly Rubenstein librarians would like to invite you to visit us for Screamfest III, an open house featuring creepy ADORABLE things from our collections.

Like this postcard of these sweet black kitty-cats, bringing you Halloween joys in their happy hot air pumpkins.

Or this illustration of these precious babies from our History of Medicine Collection’s Opera Omnia Anatomico-Medico-Chirurgica by Frederik Ruysch. Yes, fine, they’re skeleton babies, and they’re standing on a pile of human organs, but they’re totally listening to a song by The Wiggles.

You can also page through the 1984 Chanticleer to view the photos of this friendly library ghost, who just wants to bring you fuzzy slippers so you can study comfortably.

And sure, scourge and sword-wielding demons are very scary when they’re life-sized. But swing by our open house and you’ll be able to bravely make kissy-faces at this little dude (paperclip for scale) from the Edwin and Terry Murray Collection of Role-Playing Games.

In fact, we promise that there will be so much cuteness (and candy) that, well, you might die. See you there!

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