It’s easy to discard the photographs Shelby Lee Adams has collected for the past thirty years in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky. Some would say they are little more than the flat, black and white, unruly children of a man who held out the worst of his people for a judgmental world to see in order to gain profit and recognition. Others defend Adams, saying his approach is pure, even if his subjects are staged and not the most presentable (whatever that word might mean in this context) examples of his neighbors. I hold membership to neither of these schools of thought, but it does force me to realize something about his neighbors, who are very much my neighbors also.
As a former newspaper editor in the county, in fact, the town in which Adams grew up, I look at his subjects not only with the interest an Eastern Kentuckian might bring to such examination, but also an insight beneficial to understanding Adams’ approach.
Hazard, Kentucky – the modest Perry County town where Adams was raised and the town where I worked as managing editor of the Hazard Herald – is a place where suspicion beats steadily through the thick blood of kinfolk and friend alike. You are met with this instantly if you spend any amount of time asking questions or trying to wrangle an opinion from anyone who might live there. And if they agree to talk, answer questions, or, say, pose for a picture, they change before your very eyes. They stand a little straighter, they talk differently, they never take their eyes off you. The relaxed demeanor of mountain people that each person from this area genuinely possesses without effort or notice will be stuffed beneath their hat as soon as you pull out a notebook, a pen or a camera. You lose them and every unique quality each one gives off naturally without otherwise being aware it even exists. The subtle speech patterns, broken and beautiful, become hurriedly polished and as out of place on their tongue as patches of hair. That which replaces it is a blend of Midwestern dialect possibly mimicked from the trained anchor on the evening newscast, or, more likely, from a cousin or uncle who visits two or three times a year from Michigan or Indiana. They become guarded and suspect the worse, arms crossed and as stiff as wood, and that’s if they agree to take part at all. And it doesn’t matter at all if you’re a local, as is the case with Adams. In many cases, this can make the task at hand that much more challenging.
How then is a person supposed to approach such subjects with objectivity? As Adams said during an interview for the documentary made about his life and work, The True Meaning of Pictures, there can be no objectivity because, as he said, “these people are not objects.” Many argue as to whether or not Adams is a documentarian (taking snapshots of what he observes as an outsider) or an artist who places each stroke, each pose, exactly where he intends. The argument, although interesting, matters in no way I can immediately figure. I don’t believe Adams feels he has any choice but to stage, at least to some extent, certain photographs, and I wholeheartedly agree.
Each image Adams has captured during his summer trips to Perry County has unabashedly has this staged look – a boy gripping a fighting rooster and glaring seriously at the photographer; a proud father, chest stuck out, holding his child firmly in his arms beneath a makeshift canopy constructed from a discarded satellite dish, smiling into the camera lens; another of two young girls standing side by side on a front porch flanked by the rolling and soft curves of the Appalachian Mountains, hands braced confidently against boney hips, their faces strict and hard, nearly, but not quite, masking the playful mischief at the corners of their mouths, just behind the eyes.
Adams says he has an agreement with the subjects of his photographs in that he offers them family photographs freely and then asks them to pose for some for his own work, which they quickly agree to do. I read about this to a certain extent and spent a great deal of time looking at his photographs before actually getting the chance to watch the documentary, The True Meaning of Pictures, by filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal. The documentary gave me a great deal more insight on Adams’ motivation, but, like any good snapshot of life, really only led me to more questions, particularly about Adams’ relationship with the three families he has photographed over the years.
The Perry County native seems to have an honest affection for these family members. Most memorably Selina Childers, the mentally challenged, full of life and laughter daughter of the Childers family. Selina seems to honestly enjoy Adams’ company and likewise, Adams’ seems to be caring and considerate without pretension in dealing with her and her family. However, there are points to be made for any or all of Adams’ pictures as far as interpretation is concerned.
When you know the backstory with these families and Adams’ close ties to them, his pictures take on a different quality; you can see that humanity there between the hard lines of a face or the dropped eyes of what appears to be a saddened child. But those backstories may not be found in the pictures alone, no matter how hard Adams tries to bring that across, which is, I believe, part of what he has been trying to do for three decades. Instead, the New York or Los Angeles or Urban-wherever critics brings to the table, no matter their best effort, generations of stereotypes that have the potential to simply blast from the photograph and into the very forefront of their collective minds.
It’s unfortunate. Baichwal’s documentary cannot run on a big screen television in the art gallery where Adams most recent show is being considered, picked over, smiled at or frowned upon or taken seriously. The art collector or enthusiast will not have the story behind the photograph unless they can see through the stereotypes and truly see and understand what Adams is trying to show them. Because make no mistake about it, the most pure form of humanity is there, and it’s there because of subjectivity rather than objectivity. It’s present and recognizable because these are photographs taken of friends by someone considered a friend. There is a trust there that has developed for Adams over the course of thirty years that is valuable to everyone involved. Without this trust and respect, Adams would have nothing to show the world. As it is, he has taken the people in his area who many feel should be hidden away from the public eye and said to hell with stereotypes all together. Stereotypes should not dictate whether these decent people are photographed or not. He has said to us, in no uncertain terms, judge people for who they are, not as how the world has narrow-mindedly invented them.