Friday, February 09, 2007

Shelby Lee Adams' Photographs

I love to look at old black and white photographs. I'm not fussy--Ansel Adams is great, but I also like the work of unknown portrait makers showing people in their yards, their porches, or their coffins. Some time ago, I started to write a short essay on Shelby Lee Adams's work for my Appalachia collection, and just bogged down with it. I still can't decide what I think of his work. In composition, and in the use of contrast, the photographs are beautiful. I don't find his portrait subjects all that disturbing, but I grew up on a farm in Iowa, where hog butchering, woodsheds, satellite dishes, and outhouses were routine, and I wasn't raised to ignore the poor, the handicapped, or the infirm, either.

Adams' photographs feature all these subjects in rural Kentucky. While he protests that these people are his friends and relatives, he only "summers" in the Appalachians. When he returns to his Massachusetts studio, he has to understand that his suburban gallery-go-ers will gawk at these pictures like a fatal car crash. "My God! The poverty, the deformity, the white trash! How much for a print?"

He's making money and a career off the hillbilly stereotype, like so many others (including James Dickey and John Fox, Jr.) have before him. I'm not sure what I think of that, but God help me, I like many of the pictures. You can see some at these links, and also read other reviewers' anguished musings about what it all means.

  • Shelby Lee Adams Gallery photos
  • More gallery photos, with Adams' CV & bio
  • Shelby Lee Adams, Gallery Exibition
  • Another gallery, another exhibition
  • another one yet
  • 2002 review: "I do not see poverty in my pictures:"
    Are Shelby Lee Adams's documentary stills of rural Kentucky insightful or exploitative? Sarah Milroy talks to the photographer, who is himself tormented by contradiction.
  • From: Appalachian Books Summer 1998 Releases: Appalachian Legacy: Photographs by Shelby Lee Adams. Oxford: University of Mississippi Press, 1998.
    The author's autobiographical essay and his explanation of his rationale for creating this disturbing book are both interesting. Adams grew up in rural Letcher County, Kentucky, and ironically Hobart Ison who shot and killed a Canadian photographer there in 1967, when Adams was a senior in high school, was his cousin. Adams claims he is interested in the last remnants of traditional mountain people, but he has obviously chosen for this book a disproportionate number of traditional people who happen to have physical and mental abnormalities. They sometimes appear especially grotesque the way Adams has configured the pictures. Thus, despite the title and despite the fact that several of the pictures here are outstanding, this is not a book about Appalachia. Instead, too much of it is simply a book which serves merely to reinforce the worst stereotypes of the region as a whole. As part of a larger collection of all kinds of regional photography, this book may serve an artistic or sociological purpose....
  • The holler dwellers: The photographs of Shelby Lee Adams' Appalachia are so honest, they make you wince" by Christina Rees (Dec 3, 1998).

    ....We're more likely to look to third-world countries for signs of gross poverty or archaic society than we are to search our own back yard....To most of us urbanites, Appalachia's impression was sealed in celluloid in 1972....Part black-and-white documentation, part haunting artistic vision, Adams' photos go beyond the call of duty on either end....National Geographic meets Diane Arbus, On the Road with David Lynch instead of Charles Kuralt.

    ...most viewers will likely forget they're even looking at stunningly composed photographs. They're too busy marveling at what they reveal: a legacy of rural tradition anchored in welfare, alcohol, coal mining, religion, and questionably extended families....We are outside looking in, and though we try, we can't quite grasp what separates these people from the rest of us. We can't fathom that it's because we own computers and fast cars and work in office buildings, and they handle snakes in church and slaughter hogs and use outhouses. Sure, theirs is an evaporating culture in a fast-homogenizing world, but you can see in those eyes, those knowing, challenging gazes, that their mixed fate is rooted far deeper than the material, far past their lack of college education and paltry paychecks. That Adams' photos can hint at the complexity of this buried mountain culture without exploiting its people is the second part of his art.

    ....It's difficult to neatly package an emotional response to this work. The sensationalist in us wants to know all the dirt, to find affirmation in our suspicion of the subjects' depravity. The humanitarian in us wants to suspend judgment and study the photos as art and fact. Devil on the left shoulder, angel on the right. In the end, our projected criticism may say more about us than about them--Adams' endangered holler dwellers. And we can only hope that if someone photographed us in our natural environment, our eyes could meet the camera with the same soulful honesty, the same beautiful truth.

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