PRINT November 2002


“WHY COULDN’T HE JUST HAVE TAKEN A PRETTY PICTURE?” The image is of a young girl, radiant, bathed in the most exquisite light as she stands behind a torn screen door deep in a Kentucky holler. Yet to her well-dressed older sister who now lives in town, the picture, taken years before by Shelby Lee Adams, represents the stereotype she sought to overcome: the lazy, unwashed hillbilly. For her that front porch is still too close for comfort. And yet it’s the real sense of intimacy in Adams’s photographs, even at their spookiest, that offers an image of the “mountain people” of Appalachia that we may not have seen before.

Born in Hazard, Kentucky, Adams has been returning there to make pictures for over thirty years now, building on a body of work that has received increasing acclaim but also the kind of ambivalent criticism once reserved for Diane Arbus. With the recent premiere of a feature-length documentary on Adams, The True Meaning of Pictures, and his third book, Appalachian Lives, due this winter, the debate over his work will likely heat up: Are these pictures a true record or an exploitative betrayal? Consider his picture of Eric and Spike, as honest and direct a portrait of a boy and his rooster as you’ll ever see—not that you’re likely to see very many. And while his photographs may hang in galleries and museums, you’ll also find them prominently displayed in the homes of his subjects, into which he has been welcomed from one generation to the next.

When Adams began taking pictures in Kentucky in the early ’70s, farmers had been turned into cheap labor for coal mines and were later put out of work altogether, while strip-mining tore up the landscape. It was here that he set out, with the advantage of having come from this insular world, to show the “dignity” and “inner strength” of these people. In representing them he may construct a scene, but it’s always drawn from their own—and his—lived experience. His use of lights, flash, and a wide-angle lens serves to heighten, not falsify, reality. Just look at Driving Straight to Hell, 1998. Spatially, the picture is extraordinary: Adams puts you right inside that pickup, even if it’s the last place you’d want to be. He says that his work is “not an objective document . . . it’s me, my friends,” and thinks of it as a kind of self-portrait, their shared history. Of the Napiers, whom he's frequently photographed, he reminds us, “They are living like a family might have lived a hundred years ago.” Home funerals and snake handling continue, but the man in The New Yard, 2001, poses proudly beside his horse and his satellite dish. The outside world isn’t as far away as it once was.

More than a record of a way of life that’s disappearing, these are pictures of an artist’s passage from his boyhood to a place behind the camera, of how he moves between the two from one picture to the next.

Bob Nickas