Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Appalachian photographer's images stir debate

Shelby Lee Adams has been documenting life in Eastern Kentucky through photography over the last seven years, and this Thursday an exhibit of this work, which has been compiled in his new book Salt & Truth, will open at the Paul Paletti Gallery in Louisville. His "arresting photographs" show residents of small mountain towns in black and white, often "in rural settings that haven't changed much in a hundred years," writes Matt Frassica of The Courier-Journal. (Photo: Adams with James Napier, Leatherwood, Ky., 2008)

Adams is from southeastern Kentucky's Letcher County but now lives in western Massachusetts. He's been traveling back to his native region to document Appalachian culture and "show a very specific, isolated segment of the culture, that's also disappearing and changing," he said. He calls his method of photography "an open dialogue," in which he discusses with his subjects what they want to wear, where they wish to be photographed and with which props. He involves the people in every step of making the photograph, he said, and when he returns the following year, brings prints for them to see.

Some critics say his work perpetuates stereotypes of Appalachian Kentuckians. University of Kentucky sociology professor Dwight Billings objects to the "Southern Gothic" style of the photographs that have an emphasis on "the grotesque, frightening, bizarre and spooky." Beth Newberry, co-publisher of The Hillville, a blog documenting urban Appalachia, told Frassica it's up to the viewer to determine the interpretation. Silas House, interim director of the Loyal Jones Appalachian Center at Berea College, said he is more ambivalent about it, saying he thinks the subjects deserve to have their stories preserved, but he also fears the pictures may make people unfamiliar with life in Appalachia "react with pity rather than sympathy," Frassica reports.

Adams says he's creating art that is true to himself, which actually dispels stereotypes: "I think Appalachian culture sometimes has an ideal view of itself. In order to dissolve the stereotype, you need to look at what you come from more clearly, without all those idealized images." He said his work is often taken out of context because he doesn't consider himself a documentary photographer; he considers himself an artist, and he said "that kind of bothers people." He will be at Carmichael's Bookstore in Louisville on Saturday at 4 p.m. to sign copies of Salt & Truth, and at a reception at the Paul Paletti Gallery from 6 to 8 p.m. on Thursday. Both events are free. (Read more)


John Edwin Mason said...

Good post. Adams' photos definitely need to be talked about. They're powerful, they're widely exhibited, and they shape many outsiders' ideas about Appalachia.

One small correction. Adams has been photographing in Appalachia for four decades, not seven years. He was already part of a major Appalshop documentary project, in the 1970s.

Jamie S. Ross said...

I found Adams' comment about being an "artist," not a documentary photographer, telling. Clearly these pictures do tell way more about Adams the "artist" than they do about the subjects of the photos.

Unlike Andrew Stern whose magnificent pictures draw us into the humanity of his subjects, Adams work never gest past his own pity.