Category Archives: Archive of Documentary Arts

I Wander all Night in My Vision: Commemorating William Gedney and Walt Whitman

Post contributed by Paula Jeannet, Visual Materials Processing Archivist at the Rubenstein Library

“Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am,
Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary,
Looks down, is erect, or bends an arm on an impalpable certain rest,
Looking with side-curved head curious what will come next,
Both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it.

Backward I see in my own days where I sweated through fog with
linguists and contenders,
I have no mockings or arguments, I witness and wait.”

Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself,” Section 4

June 23, 2019 marked the 30th anniversary of photographer William Gedney’s death in New York City in 1989 at the young age of 56.  Gedney’s career spanned a time of great changes in American society and elsewhere, and in his photographs he captures the vitality and promise of those decades as well as the counterweights of social isolation and poverty.  A lover of literature, he found early inspiration for his work in another New Yorker: Walt Whitman. Like Whitman, Gedney was fascinated by people in all their complexity and was an exceptional portraitist, using his camera rather than a pen; like Whitman, he was especially drawn to street life and crowds.  The full extent of Gedney’s preoccupation with Whitman can be more fully explored through the photographer’s archive; for now, this blog post will indicate some starting points in the collection.

Born in 1932, Gedney grew up in rural Greenville, New York, in the Hudson River Valley.  As a child, his family took him to visit relatives in the big city, and ultimately he studied art at Pratt Institute and moved into a cold-water flat in Brooklyn in the mid-1950s. While working as a commercial photographer to pay the bills and cover darkroom expenses, he roamed Brooklyn neighborhoods, his camera loaded with black-and-white film.  Many of the images capture daily life and the inhabitants of Myrtle Avenue, where he lived.  He continued this documentary work for the rest of his life.

Black and white photograph with elevated railway on Myrtle Ave in Brooklyn
Myrtle Avenue, May 5, 1969, 4:45 pm [taken from Gedney’s apartment window].  Print RL10032-P-1580-6682-08.   From this vantage point, Gedney also documented the demolition of the elevated railway soon after its closure in October 1969.  William Gedney photographs and papers, © David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library
Black and white photograph of two boys
Caption: Brooklyn, 1955-1959. Print RL10032-P-B14-75-21. William Gedney photographs and papers, © David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library
Person with their arms out wide and head thrown back, perhaps smiling.
O’Rourke’s, January 9, 1960. Print RL10032-P-0057-0589-43. William Gedney photographs and papers, © David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library

In 1966, William Gedney’s photographic life took flight: he traveled to Kentucky (twice), cross country to California (also twice), then across the ocean to Ireland, England, Paris (twice again), and India, also twice.  Brooklyn always drew him back.

Sometime around 1968 or 1969, perhaps inspired by Whitman’s interest in celebrating and documenting urban street life, he began a consuming project to uncover the history of Myrtle Avenue from its beginnings in the 18th century, using newspapers and literary sources, including the Brooklyn Eagle, for which Whitman served as editor, writing copious notes and pasting clippings in two volumes, Myrtle Avenue 1 and 2 – another habit he would continue throughout his life.  Some of his notes include transcripts of Whitman poems:

Two pages from Gedney's journal from 1969.
Myrtle Avenue, Book 1, pages 6-7. Transcription of Walt Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road,” Leaves of Grass.

At some point (probably earlier than 1969), he discovered that Walt Whitman had lived in Brooklyn, on 99 Ryerson Street, just a few blocks from Gedney’s neighborhood on Myrtle Avenue.  While living at that address, Whitman published his ground-breaking epic poem Leaves of Grass in June 1855.

Although it’s not clear when the idea first came to him, in 1969 Gedney began to create the layout for a project to combine Whitman’s verses with his own photographs of New York City.  In one of his notebooks, titled only with the year 1969, he writes about “the bridge” photographs, and of framing them with Hart Crane’s poem “The Bridge.”

Black and white photograph of the Brooklyn bridge.
Brooklyn Bridge, circa 1959, Print RL10032-P-0008-0076-30. William Gedney photographs and papers, © David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library

A few months later, in the same notebook, Gedney writes “I think the bridge pictures would be best paired with Whitman’s Brooklyn Ferry poem under the overall title ‘Brooklyn Crossing.’  His poem is the one I was most under the influence at the time.”  The Brooklyn Bridge book maquette in the Gedney archive contains no accompanying texts; however, during the recent Rubenstein project to rehouse and digitize the Gedney archive, the lead archivist came across this item hiding out in a box of oversize materials:

Stanza 2 of Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” in Gedney’s own hand. William Gedney photographs and papers, © David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library

Sometime around 1970, Gedney again turned to Whitman’s verses, this time selecting the poem “I wander all night in my vision” to introduce his planned book of night photographs taken in India.  Clearly Whitman was still on his mind and informing his work.

Man asleep on a ledge in an alley at night
Benares, India, 1969-1971. Print RL10032-P-BE121-0950-26. William Gedney photographs and papers, © David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library
Whitman quote of "I wander all nigh in my vision"
Layout page from planned photobook of night photography from Benares, India, circa 1980. William Gedney photographs and papers, © David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library

I had thought Gedney’s connection to Whitman largely remained unexamined, with the exception of Margaret Sartor’s comments in her seminal book introducing Gedney and his archive to the world: What Was True: the Photographs and Notebooks of William Gedney (W.W. Norton, 2000). Then, while researching this blog post, I discovered Mark Turner’s book, Backward Glances: Cruising the Queer Streets of NY and London (Reaktion Books: London, 2003), which in the context of the phenomenon of male cruising, discusses the remarkable parallels between Gedney and Whitman. The two clearly favored male liaisons, and this orientation was reflected to some degree in their poetic and artistic work.  Beginning in 1975, Gedney began extensively documenting the exuberant gay pride parades as well as street hustlers in San Francisco and New York, until a few years before his death.  At the same time, he was intensely private about his personal life, never fully coming out even to his closest friends.

“…as I pass, O Manhattan! your frequent and swift flash of eyes offering me love,
Offering me the response of my own–these repay me,
Lovers, continual lovers, only repay me.”

Walt Whitman, “Calamus 18”

Men sitting on the grass, one man with his head resting on the lap of another
June 25, 1978, New York City, gay march, Central Park. Print RL10032-P-1876-9617-07. William Gedney photographs and papers, © David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library
Man with unbuttoned shirt standing on street near strip club.
No known title, 1969. Proof print, contact sheet 1588. William Gedney photographs and papers, © David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library

Like William Gedney, Walt Whitman also celebrates an anniversary in 2019: he was born 200 years ago on May 31, 1819.  Many events have been planned in his honor:  http://waltwhitmaninitiative.org/

It’s easy to imagine that he would have been intrigued by Gedney’s photography and pleased at the idea of a publication of Brooklyn images prefaced by his own verses.

Sadly, it was not to be: Gedney bequeathed the world a body of compelling, eloquent photographic work, but his many book projects remained unpublished, with only the book maquettes in the archive as evidence of Gedney’s hopeful plans.  Perhaps with the right editor, these two artists will be joined again as Gedney had imagined.

“These and all else were to me the same as they are to you,
I loved well those cities, loved well the stately and rapid river,
The men and women I saw were all near to me,
Others the same—others who look back on me because I look’d forward to them,
(The time will come, though I stop here to-day and to-night.)”

Walt Whitman, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” stanza 4

No known title, circa 1968. Print RL10032-P-1537-6255-32. Tree in foreground, Walt Whitman’s tomb in background, Camden, New Jersey. William Gedney photographs and papers, © David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library

 


Note about the Gedney Collection: Although William Gedney’s work was still largely undiscovered by mainstream audiences at the time of his death in 1989, it stood on the cusp of an awakening, thanks primarily to the efforts of close friends Maria and Lee Friedlander, and John Sarkowski, curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art.  Eventually the entire Gedney archive — over 49,000 photographs, negatives, artwork, and papers – came to Duke University’s David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, and is now being digitized in its entirety (the finished prints and contact sheets are already available online). You can learn more about the collection by visiting the collection guide online.

Announcing our 2019-2020 Travel Grant Recipients

The Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library is pleased to announce the recipients of the 2019-2020 travel grants! Our research centers annually award travel grants to students, scholars, and independent researchers through a competitive application process. Congratulations to this year’s recipients:

Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture (Mary Lily Research Grants):

Emily Fleisher, Artist: Artistic project will include a series of drawings based on historic needlework that create a narrative about the lives of American women before 1920

Charlie Jeffries, Faculty, University of East Anglia: Your Best American Girl: Construction of Adolescent Sexualities in the US Culture Wars

Laura Kenner, Doctoral Candidate, Harvard University, History of Art and Architecture Department: Text, Sex, and Video: New York City’s Downtown/Underground Scene (1973-1996)

Nell Lake, Doctoral Candidate, Brown University, American Studies Department: Research for dissertation that will link 20th century moral discourse around care and domestic labor with 20th century politics of women’s work

Jessica Lapp, Doctoral Candidate, University of Toronto, Faculty of Information: The Provenance of Protest: An Exploration of Feminist Activist Archiving

Kaja Marczewska, Research Fellow, Coventry University, Centre for Postdigital Cultures: Distribute-it-Yourself: Judy Hogan and the History of North American Small Press in Circulation (1960s-1990s)

Jennifer Withrow, Doctoral Candidate, University of Massachusetts Amherst, Economics Department: Three Essays on Labor and Marriage Markets: Farm Crisis and Rural-to-Urban Migration in the United States, 1920-1940

 

John Hope Franklin Center for African and African American History and Culture:

Selena Doss – Faculty, Western Kentucky University, Involuntary Pilgrimage: Black Southerners and Territorial Separatism, 1783-1904

John Harris – Faculty, Erskine College, Pirates of New York: The United States and the Final Era of the Illegal Slave Trade, 1850-1867

Jacqueline Fewkes – Faculty, Florida Atlantic University, American Mosques: An Ethnohistory of Space, Memory, and Muslim-American Community

Crystal Sanders – Faculty, Penn State, America’s Forgotten Migration: Black Graduate Education in the Age of Jim Crow

Kali Tambree – Doctoral Candidate UCLA, Enslaved African peoples who jump off of the slave ship as it is en route to the Americas

Charles Weisenberger – Doctoral Candidate, University of Massachusetts-Amherst “The Telfair Family and the Antebellum One Percent: Slavery in the Early United States, 1735-1875”

John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising, and Marketing History:

Sarah Arnold, Faculty, Maynooth University, Department of Media: Television, Technology and Gender: New Platforms and New Audiences

Mark Bartholomew, Faculty, University of Buffalo, School of Law: “Advertising Outrage and its Legal Regulation”

Rachel Kirby, Doctoral Candidate, Boston University, American and New England Studies: Study of visual representation of Southern agricultural products

Shayan Lallani, Doctoral Candidate, University of Ottowa, Department of History: Cultural Globalization in the Caribbean: Dining and the American Middle-Class Turn in Cruise Ship Tourism, 1920-2016

Adam Mack, Faculty, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Liberal Arts Department: Limitless: Supermarkets and the Dilemma of Choice

Brent Malin, Faculty, Pittsburgh University, Department of Communications: Ordinary and Necessary: A History of the American Tax Deduction for Advertising

James McElroy, Doctoral Candidate, University of Minnesota, Department of History: Racial Segregation and Market Segregation: The Late-Twentieth Century History of the American City Supermarket, 1960-1990

Emily Morgan, Faculty, Iowa State University, Department of Visual Culture: Imagining Animal Industry: Visualizing the American Meatpacking Trade, 1890-1980

Robert Terrell, Faculty, Syracuse University, Department of History: The People’s Drink: The Politics and Culture of German Beer in the Twentieth Century

Emily Westkaemper, Faculty, James Madison University, Department of History: Career Women: Image and Reality in U.S. Popular Culture, 1940-2000

 

History of Medicine Collections:

Matthew Barrett, Doctoral Candidate, Queen’s University, History Department: Conduct Unbecoming an Officer and a Doctor: Medical Attitudes toward Homosexuality and the Court-Martial of Dr. Percy E. Ryberg

Kelly O’Donnell, Faculty, Thomas Jefferson University, College of Humanities and Sciences: Study of the role doctors’ wives played in the medical profession, recasting the history of American health care by focusing on the women behind the “great men” of medicine

Laura Smith, Doctoral Candidate, University of Arkansas, History Department: Southern Doctors from Southern Communities: Medical Education and Professionalization in the Nineteenth-Century South

 

Human Rights Archive (Marshall T. Meyer Research Travel Grants):

Meghan Gibbons, Independent Researcher: Nationalism and Maternal Protest in the US, El Salvador, and Argentina

Gabrielle Girard, Doctoral Candidate, Princeton University, History Department: Modeling Democracy: The Global History of an Argentine Human Rights Experiment, 1978-1991

Michael Jones, Doctoral Candidate, Tulane University, Department of Political Science: Blood & Peace in the Hills of Africa: Post-conflict Institutions in Comparison

Zachary Norman, Faculty, University of Utah, Department of Art & Art History: “Researching Images of Incarceration: Developing Visual Art & Studies Courses to be Taught Inside”

Mira Rai Waits, Faculty, Appalachian State University, Department of Art: Colonial Carcerality: The Birth of the Modern Prison in India

 

Harry H. Harkins T’73 Travel Grants for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History:

Jonathan Coleman, Independent Researcher: Anywhere, Together: A Queer History of Kentucky

Benjamin Serby, Doctoral Candidate, Columbia University, History Department: Gay Liberation and the Politics of the Self in Postwar America

 

Photographic Research Grants, Co-Sponsored by the Archive of Documentary Arts and the History of Medicine Collections:

Rachel Fein-Smolinski, Faculty, Syracuse University, Department of Transmedia: “Sex Lives of Animals Without Backbones: A Study of the Aesthetics of Pain and Courage Within the Western Healthcare System”

 

We look forward to working with you all!

Developing a Code of Ethics for Rubenstein Library Instruction Sessions

So far this academic year, Rubenstein librarians have taught 132 class sessions (though we won’t finalize these numbers until the end of the spring semester). You’d think that’d be enough to fill our time, but we’ve also been meeting monthly to discuss our individual teaching practices and how to improve our students’ experiences in our class sessions. We want to inspire confident special collections researchers for life!

Through our discussions, we realized that we often returned to couple of key points about archives and primary source research in our class sessions. We’d broach those points on an ad hoc basis as they arose in classes, but we wondered if starting our class sessions off with a shared understanding of those points would be useful, reassuring, and perhaps even empowering for our students.

We’ve followed the development of codes of ethics for different spaces and organizations within (and beyond) our profession and thought that model might also work for us. Early this semester, we drafted and began implementing what we’re calling our approach to classes at the Rubenstein Library. (“Code of ethics” seemed so heady that it might have the unfortunate effect of tamping down student engagement.) Here is what we developed:

Explore and be curious! Our class sessions are interactive, hands-on opportunities to look at lots of materials, so take advantage of this time. Challenge yourself to look (even briefly) at items that don’t initially catch your interest—you might be surprised at what you discover.

Our class sessions seek to be inclusive, offering multiple perspectives, viewpoints, or lived experiences, but may not include the voices of every population for a number of reasons. Let’s talk in class about the voices that aren’t being presented.

The background, experience, and knowledge you bring to this class session are valuable. There isn’t one right interpretation of a historical document. Please listen carefully and treat everyone’s responses respectfully.

The material you encounter in this session has the potential to be uncomfortable or upsetting. Be kind to yourself and recognize your limits. You can look at something else or even step out of the room to take a break.

When working with historical documents, you may encounter racist, oppressive, or outdated language in the documents themselves or in the archival record. When we discuss these items, we will want to use terms that reflect the ways these communities describe themselves today.

Later this month, we’ll come together as a group of instructors to talk about how we’ve been able to incorporate the code into our class sessions—but informal reports suggest it’s been useful! Our practice has generally been to give students two to three minutes to individually read over the code (presented on a slide) and then talk as a class about any questions they might have and how the individual points in the code might come up in the class session.

Color photograph of librarian teaching the code of ethics to a class session. The code appears projected on a screen behind her. Students sit at a conference table in front of the screen.
A Rubenstein librarian teaches our new instruction code of ethics in a recent class session.

We see this as a living document that we’ll continue to refine and add to as needed. So please do let us know what you think and feel free to borrow or adapt our instruction code of ethics for your own class sessions!

Applications Now Accepted for the 2019-2020 Travel Grant Program

The David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library is now accepting applications for our 2019-2020 travel grants. If you are a researcher, artist, or activist who would like to use sources from the Rubenstein Library’s research centers for your work, this means you!

The Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture, the John Hope Franklin Research Center for African and African American History and Culture, the John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising & Marketing History, the History of Medicine Collections, the Human Rights Archive, and the Archive of Documentary Arts, will each award up to $1,500 per recipient ($2,000 for international applicants to the Human Rights Archive) to fund travel and other expenses related to visiting the Rubenstein Library. The Rubenstein Library also awards up to $1,500 for individuals who would benefit from access to our gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender history collections through the Harry H. Harkins, Jr. T’73 Travel Grant.

The grants are open to undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, independent scholars, artists, and activists who live more than 100 miles from Durham, North Carolina, and whose research projects would benefit from access to collections held by one of the centers listed above.

More details—and the grant application—may be found on our grants website. Applications must be submitted no later than 5:00 PM EST on January 31, 2019. Recipients will be announced in March 2019.

New Acquisitions – Photobooks in the Archive of Documentary Arts

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

 

 

Over the past three years the Archive of Documentary Arts (ADA) has focused on building its collection of photobooks. The ADA is most interested in photobooks in which images are the primary content, or are considered co-equal with a text. Much like artists’ books, photobooks are conceived as artworks in their own right and can be considered art objects. Photobooks are often the primary medium for a series of photographs and as such, attention to the interaction between form and content, as well as the relationship between text and image, are central concerns to the artist.

Photobooks first emerged soon after the advent of photography in the 1840’s. Anna Atkins’ handmade book Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions from 1843 is credited as the first book illustrated with photographs and William Henry Fox Talbot’s Pencil of Nature followed soon after in 1844. Since the nineteenth century, photobooks have proliferated as a medium which allows for artistic exploration and as means to circulate photographs to a wider audience. Today artists continue to make photobooks both in small editions by hand or using print-on-demand services, and at a large scale, most often through partnerships with academic and independent publishers.

In the 2016-2017 academic year the ADA welcomed over 100 photobooks to the collection. This included historic and contemporary photobooks by individual artists such as Zalmaï Ahad, Barbara Bosworth, Alvin Langdon Coburn, Petra Barth, Andre Bradley, William Christenberry, Masahisa Fukase, Juan Giraldo, Meg Griffiths, Gregory Halpern, Justine Kurland, Susan Lipper, Mary Ellen Mark, Paula McCartney, Cristina de Middel, Nancy Rexroth, Alec Soth, Matjaz Tancic, Mickalene Thomas, Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb.

The ADA also collects the complete output of several publishers who specialize in photobooks, including Aperture, Daylight Books, Horse and Buggy Press, and Radius Books.

All ADA photobooks are available to researchers in the Rubenstein Library.

Browse our photobook holdings in the online catalog >

A History of Photography (in 90 minutes)

Date: March 31, 2017
Time: 2:00-3:30pm
Location: Rubenstein Library Room 150 (Beckstett Classroom)
Register Now

Join us for a crash course in the history of photography from daguerreotypes to digital files. Participants will learn about photographic technology, formats, artists, and movements through the Rubenstein  Library’s extensive collection of photographs. The workshop will be taught by Lisa McCarty, Curator of the Rubenstein Library’s Archive of Documentary Arts.

This workshop is open to all but advanced registration is required.

2017 Visiting Filmmaker: Carlos Sandoval

2017 Visiting Filmmaker: Carlos Sandoval

Reception & Public Conversation with Sandoval & Dr. Diamonstein-Spielvogel

March 2, 5:00-7:00 pm, Conversation begins at 5:30pm

Rubenstein Library, Holsti-Anderson Family Assembly Room,

First Floor, Room 153 | Directions to the Rubenstein Library | Map

 

In March 2017, the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library will welcome Carlos Sandoval as the fourth Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel Visiting Filmmaker. Named in honor of Dr. Diamonstein-Spielvogel, a prolific author, interviewer, curator, and champion of the arts, this program provides an opportunity for internationally recognized filmmakers to interact with students and the public through a variety of programming including lectures, conversations, screenings.

Carlos Sandoval’s films include The State of Arizona (with Catherine Tambini, Independent Lens 2014, Emmy Nomination, CINE Golden Eagle), A Class Apart (with Peter Miller, American Experience 2009, Imagen Award, optioned by Eva Longoria) and Farmingville (with Catherine Tambini, P.O.V. 2004, Sundance Special Jury Prize).

A writer and sometime lawyer, Sandoval’s essays have appeared in several publications, including The New York Times. Sandoval worked on immigration and refugee affairs as a member of the U.S. delegation to the United Nations, and as a program officer for The Century Foundation. He is a Sundance and MacArthur Fellow and an advisor for Firelight Media. Sandoval is currently Co-Executive Director of Next Generation Leadership, a professional development diversity fellowship funded by The Corporation for Public Broadcasting and produced by WGBH and The Partnership, Inc. Of Mexican American and Puerto Rican descent, Sandoval grew up in Southern California and is a graduate of Harvard College and of the University of Chicago School of Law.

Sandoval will be in residence at Duke March 2 & 3.  During this time, Sandoval  will meet with scholars, students and staff.

The public conversation on March 2 is free and open to the public and made possible through the generous support of Dr. Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel.

New Acquisitions Roundup: Farm Security Administration Portfolio

Over the next two weeks, we’ll be celebrating the beginning of a new fiscal year by reviewing some notable items and collections that arrived here at the Rubenstein Library in the past year.

Lange
Photograph by Dorothea Lange from Portfolio of 10 photographs by Walker Evans, Dorthea Lange, Ben Shahn, and Arthur Rothstein, selected and printed by Arthur Rothstein.

The photographs made for the Farm Security Administration form a profound pictorial record of American life during and following the Great Depression. Between 1935-1944 the FSA commissioned photographers including Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, Arthur Rothstein, Ben Shahn, Jack Delano, Marion Post Wolcott, Gordon Parks, and Carl Mydans initially to document the challenges facing farmers and migratory agricultural workers as part of the New Deal. The project eventually expanded to include documentation of urban living conditions across the U.S. as well. This collective work for the FSA made a major contribution to the then burgeoning practice of documentary photography and many FSA contributors ultimately became icons of 20th century photography.

This portfolio includes 10 images that Rothstein believed were representative of the FSA’s overall output including the now iconic “Migrant Mother” photograph by Dorthea Lange.

See a comprehensive visualization of FSA photography on Photogrammar.

Post contributed by Lisa McCarty, Curator of the Archive of Documentary Arts

Rob Amberg: Forty Years in Appalachia

Joyce Chandler, Joe Ross Chandler’s wife, 1976.* Copyright, Rob Amberg
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
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.
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
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 “ShatterZone.”  Amberg defines ShatterZone 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.
At Cricket’s birthday party, Big Pine, 2011.
Copyright, Rob Amberg.
I-26 at Buckner Gap, Madison County, N.C. 2008. 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
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
Ben Amberg, Rob’s son, with Dellie and Junior, 1982.
Copyright, Rob Amberg
Junior playing with my daughter Kate, 1992. 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.
Isaac Gunter’s tobacco bed and cemetery, 1982.
Copyright, Rob Amberg.
Migrant farmworker cutting and spudding tobacco, 1993. 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 Ambger
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:  http://robamberg.com/.  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. 

 

2015 Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel Visiting Visiting Artist: Nate Larson

Reception & Artist’s Talk

Date: November 5

Time: 6:00-8:00 pm

Location: Center for Documentary Studies, 1317 W. Pettigrew St, Durham, NC

Nate_Larson_272x381In 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, lisa.mccarty@duke.edu

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

Tell me I'm not making a mistake. Tell me you’re worth the wait. #fb

 

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