Refocusing the Lens of Time

Acclaimed documentary photographer releases new book

The eloquent narrative Rob Amberg at home in Madison County
Portrait by Lauren Rutten

Photographer and writer Rob Amberg has received many prestigious awards and grants, from institutions including the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. The haunting black-and-white images of Sodom Laurel Album (2002), the first in Amberg’s trilogy focused on Madison County, showed the families and vanishing folkways of a lushly remote section of the region.

His beautifully evocative new book, Little Worlds, continues Amberg’s intimate, revelatory documentation of rural life in the county. This time, Amberg has added a speculative-fiction narrative to his combination of film and digital photography. Thomas S. Rankin, Professor of the Practice of Art, Art History & Visual Studies at Duke University, says that Little Worlds is “richly imbued with intersections of Amberg’s three eloquent narratives — photographs, journal writings, and the imaginative stories of returning to a place drastically changed.” 

Can you outline the fictional backstory of Little Worlds?

A family returns from out West to where they once lived, and it’s an absolute mess. They meet others who are returning and create a new community where the old one once was. Under a trap door in their old house they find items including a trunk of documents, jars of seeds, a manuscript, and this huge pile of photos. 

How does Little Worlds complete the trilogy?

My first book, Sodom Laurel Album, focused on that community and the people who lived there when I first moved here in 1973. The next [The New Road: I-26 and the Footprints of Progress in Appalachia, 2009] was about evolutionary changes that affected those people and shaped their way of life. We all leave a footprint on the places we live, and the places also footprint us. 

I felt strongly I needed to finish the story and complete the trilogy. I had this huge unpublished body of photographs, journal entries, and memories — and I wanted to do something different and experimental. Little Worlds is an art book — 150 significant photographs. It’s a fiction novel but also creative nonfiction — and it’s a documentary, a memoir, and, ultimately, a bedtime story. 

A bedtime story? 

My son and daughter [now 44 and 33] liked for me to tell them bedtime stories, but especially my daughter. She wanted to hear about Native American girls her age and my earlier life and times in Madison County: cutting tobacco, living in a house where you could see the dirt floor beneath the planks. And she liked stories of what this place might be in the future. Each chapter opens with a photo of her as she ages. 

Rob Amberg, Paw Paw, Madison County. To learn more or to purchase Little Worlds, visit The artist is also on Instagram (@robamberg) and Facebook. Little Worlds is currently available at Malaprop’s Bookstore in Asheville (55 Haywood St.,; Asheville Art Museum (2 Pack Square, Asheville,; and Penland & Sons Department Store (50 South Main St., Marshall, “Penland & Sons Department Store” on Facebook).

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