This paper analyzes the work of photographer Shelby Lee Adams, using the 2002 documentary The True Meaning of Pictures, directed by Jennifer Baichwal, as its principle source.
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Shelby Lee Adams was born in Hazard, Kentucky in 1950 and grew up well known to many of the rural Appalachian families that populate his photographs. Familiar though he is with the living conditions of the poorest of the poor in Kentucky, Adams nonetheless did not live in that culture, but alongside it, as an observer from a middle class background (Baichwal 2002).
When considering the question, is Adams an insider or an outsider in his Appalachian project, one must answer outsider. Why? Simply because socio-economically Adams grew up with the awareness of that poverty, but was not directly affected by it, as the subjects of his photographs have been. In Shelby Lee Adams’ work we see the impact of poverty in the lack of access to adequate food, health care, clean water and education (Baichwal 2002).
Adams’ photos chronicle these affects, but he himself cannot speak to their impact from personal experience. In essence his work may give an indirect voice to the socio-economic conditions that the Appalachian residents face, but not from the authority of having lived through that poverty. Rather, Adams’ work exploits and judges his subjects from a classist point of view.
Adams employs visual effects such as portraying the subjects consistently in black and white, utilizing consciously artificial staging, and making use of dramatic lighting effects to create exoticism in his Appalachian subjects. In the words of Variety critic Dennis Harvey, Adams’ work contains “posed shots that are classically composed and feature intricate, often chiaroscurogothic lighting. [The] result makes these “hollar dwellers” look grotesque and pathetic, like backwoods Diane Arbus subjects” (Harvey 18).
The photos essentially turn the viewer into an ethnographer, but one who is neither sympathetic nor ethical, because the heightened exoticism of the photos intensifies the distance between the viewer and the subject, and the lurid lighting especially makes the subjects appear freakish, less than human, and in many cases inspire fear in the viewer.
Documentary photography can be distinguished from other forms of photography via its commitment to the real. Unlike art photography or fashion photography for example which can be outlandishly staged and lit moodily and eerily, the basis of documentary photography is real life. Natural light does not appear to play much of a role in Adams’ work.
Often it casts gloomy, heavy weight on the subjects, which may or may have not existed at the time of day when the photo was taken. Adams’ defense for playing with reality in this way sounds less like a documentarian and more like an artist: “By getting in there with the camera, by creating some distortions, I’m hoping to make everyone think…I’m experiencing this environment. I’m trying to share with you, in an intimate way, that experience” (Baichwal 2002).
According to critic Kathleen Cummins, “Adams makes a passionate case for the style and content of his work on the foundation that his photographs are his way of expressing himself artistically” (Cummins 37). However, Adams as the documentary photographer absolutely bears responsibility for the work beyond the making of it, for the simple fact that he is showing this work outside of its context.
The interpretation of the Appalachian subjects leaves their hands and enters Adams’ hands, and how they are perceived is at the mercy of Adams’ composition. Adams functions as editor in these photographs; he has selected certain moments to record and chosen not to shoot others, and with this action he takes charge of representing the people in his photographs, for better or for worse.
As Cummins explains, “Adams reveals more about his problematic role in “documenting” Appalachia [when] he tells of how his father, as a doctor, would visit the most isolated families.”Although my father had prejudiced views, I came to know those people.” Here is revealed the inner conflict in Adams, and within America in general. The distinction between “his people” and “those people” is not about regionalism or even his vocation as a photographer. It’s about class” (Cummins 38).
Baichwal’s film remains fully aware of this, even if Adams does not, and the filmmaker “subtly constructs associations and stark contrasts between what Adams says and what he does” (Cummins 38). Adams the photographer still views his subjects as beneath him; regardless of what he might say, the thinking behind his gaze is derogatory. That sense of judging the subjects as inferior reads loudly and clearly in every photograph.
One way this discrepancy in power between Adams and his subjects might equalize would be if Adams gave his subjects their own cameras, taught them how to use them, allowed them to take their own photos, and decided as a group which photos to include in a show, book or film. The simple fact that the Appalachian peoples found in Adams’ work have no agency – that the usage and application of their own images rest in Adams’ hands and not their own – makes these works exploitative.
Baichwal, Jennifer, dir. The True Meaning of Pictures. Mercury Films, 2002. Film.
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Cummins, Kathleen. “The True Meaning of Pictures: Shelby Lee Adams’ Appalachia.” Take One March-May (2003): 37-40. Web.
Harvey, Dennis. “The True Meaning of Pictures: Shelby Lee Adams’ Appalachia.” Variety 390.2 (2003): 53. Web.