New Orleans

Shelby Lee Adams, Hazel and Mimie, 2005, gelatin silver print, 20 x 16".

Shelby Lee Adams, Hazel and Mimie, 2005, gelatin silver print, 20 x 16".

Shelby Lee Adams

Ogden Museum of Southern Art

Shelby Lee Adams, Hazel and Mimie, 2005, gelatin silver print, 20 x 16".

In a statement introducing Shelby Lee Adams’s “Salt & Truth” exhibition (on view through January 7), the artist claims it has become difficult to find “authentic, salt-of-the-earth people” to photograph. Adams’s words are those of a man who, for nearly forty years, has been photographing mountain dwellers in the eastern Kentucky Appalachians (not far from where he grew up), focusing always on the lifers rather than on the newcomers, many of whom are affiliated with corporate strip mining. But if change is apparent in this part of the country, Adams’s portraits stubbornly suspend it. Recent forays into digital color aside, he has shot most of his work in black-and-white on film, framing his subjects posing frankly beside their possessions or means of livelihood. Save for an incidental logo or tattoo, seldom is post-Depression modernity in evidence. Cue the Walker Evans comparisons. Yet Adams’s eye is warmer, more willfully documentarian than Evans’s—or Alec Soth’s or Katy Grannan’s, for that matter. Nevertheless, his photos raise similar issues: What exactly is “authenticity” and what does it say about a photographer who aims to extract its essence from people?

The portraits gathered for this show evince a conscious effort to communicate immutability, perhaps an implicit argument that time—and modernity—exists differently in the “hollers.” Adam Clark Vroman’s austere turn-of-the-century portraits of native tribes in the American Southwest come to mind as an important precedent here. Both photographers have recorded a disappearing American lifestyle, as if implicitly showing it to be endangered and misunderstood. For Adams’s part, he claims his process to be collaborative: He has loyally photographed certain families for multiple generations. In “Salt & Truth,” some photos date back to 1979, but most are from the past ten years. In one image, Billy Ray is pictured leaning on his stove; in another, little Vanessa stands with a slight forward hunch, just like the woman in the photo on the wall behind her. Then there is the freckled teen in Natasha, 2003, who, tattooed and wearing a cropped tank, looks about ready to melt into a puddle of mortification if not bolt for the next bus to New York. And the sisters in Hazel and Mimie, 2005, dressed in identical oversize white tees and jeans, as though standing in solidarity, pose rigidly erect against a weathered shed, side by side but not shoulder to shoulder—overlapping, rather, with one woman slightly in front of the other, almost protectively. Behind the pair hangs a strip cut from the body of an old Chevy as well as a horseshoe, an oddly formed branch, and a novelty license plate advising IF YOU CAN’T RUN WITH THE BIG DOGS, STAY ON THE PORCH. Here is the picturesque of backwoods living, Evans conjoined with Diane Arbus.

Yet Adams’s effort to humanize his subjects by portraying them surrounded by material things doesn’t necessarily work to his (or their) advantage. Remember here Catherine Opie’s decision to photograph her early-’90s community of transexuals against backgrounds of pure, blank color, lest her viewers fetishize other objects in the frame and thus project. Undoubtedly, Adams’s photos are tinged with a reliably fascinating dose of the predatory. But when is this not true of portraiture? What rankles more is Adams’s romantic (and dated) methodology of assuming that a selection of portraits could ever convey enough data in the information age to concretely overcome stereotyping. Does Jerry, 2004, change any preconceptions about Appalachia (a stated goal of the project) because the titular character—whose work shirt reads doug—emerges from a cabin that may or may not have electricity . . . but does so proudly? Adams’s decision to make these photos so redolent of Farm Security Administration photography almost makes the classicizing effect of his form more the subject than the sitters themselves. His compositional decisions bluntly relate the holler dwellers to a culture of resistance and perseverance that took root eighty years ago. Of course, Evans and the FSA photographers were depicting what was prevalent in rural America. What Adams seems to be positing is that the “real America” in the twenty-first century is one shaped by active subcultures—including this self-reliant, off-the-grid one, which, however anachronistically, just happens to be populated by folks who bear an uncanny resemblance to so many Evans protagonists.

Nick Stillman