from The Kingdom of Madison County,
Photographs of Madison County, North Carolina

by Rob Amberg


I moved to Madison County, North Carolina in the fall of 1973. It was unlike any place I had ever been. It was small, rural and wild, a decided contrast to suburban Washington, DC, where I was born and raised. The economy was mostly agricultural and burley tobacco was the primary crop. The landscape was dominated by the mountains, among the most rugged on the East Coast, and in sight of Mt. Mitchell, the highest point east of the Mississippi River. The people, too, were different. They seemed to live their lives according to the seasons of the year. Planting was often done by the signs of the moon. Water came from springs and heat from the forests. Older residents spoke a dialect that more closely resembled Old English and their history grew out of an oral tradition. Music, specifically balladry, was an integral part of their daily lives.

Newcomers, or "foreigners," as the locals refer to them, have played a role in the county since it was first settled by Anglos in the late eighteenth century. These missionaries, tourists, folklorists, and professionals, and more recently retirees, back-to-the-landers, and artists have all found, in Melville's words, a "true place." Most everyone speaks of being easily assimilated and feeling immediately "at home."

My intention in moving to this relatively isolated mountain county was twofold: I wanted to observe this ancient, but changing culture through photographs, and I wanted to participate in it. I wanted to do a book, but I also wanted to garden, cut firewood and be an active member of the community. Now, after thirty-six years in this place, I look back and see that much of what I have wished for my own life has come to pass. But I also see that this place has changed drastically and is rapidly becoming much like every place else.

The following photographs are from a trilogy of projects in Madison County. The first images are from Sodom Laurel Album, which was published in 2002 by the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University and the University of North Carolina Press. The second grouping of images are from The New Road: I-26 and the Footprints of Progress, which will be released in July 2009 by the Center for American Places at Columbia College and the University of Georgia Press. And the third grouping of pictures is from a work in progress, tentatively titled Today's Mountaineers, that looks at the changing demographics and lifestyles in this "true place."


Click here to begin
Click each image to go to the next.