The holler dwellers

The photographs of Shelby Lee Adams' Appalachia are so honest, they make you wince

Adams photographs the Napiers with straightforward aplomb: the adult boys take off their shirts to show their pigeon chests and scars, the grizzled old parents stand in rapt attention. The Hog Killing, perhaps the most famous of Adams' photos, shows the Napier family just after a slaughter; the six of them proudly pose around the wooden frame of a giant crucified pig, its bleeding, foaming head in a tub. They're all smiling broadly, the Napier patriarch gripping a long-handled ax. All in a day's work for them, a new American Gothic. To many of us, a macabre scenario into which we'd hate to stumble.

Adams might admit that the work is precarious for the uninitiated; he himself has been threatened by mountain people upon his approach with a camera in hand. But once he explains his own roots in the region--he was born in Hazard, Kentucky, and spent much of his childhood living with his farming grandparents outside Whitesburg--they accept his cause, and eventually embrace him, some to the point of treating him like an adopted family member. His connection to them doesn't stop with the photos; he dines with the spinstered Joseph sisters, drives Brice Caudill on errands, enjoys long chats with Hort Collins ("one of my closest friends," he writes). He returns from his home in Massachusetts, summer after summer, his relationships with his friends in six eastern Kentucky counties strengthening all the time. (The mountain people often scare outsiders and media folks with the tale of Hobart Ison, a mountain man who shot and killed a photographer for trespassing back in 1967, when Adams was a senior in high school. Some tried that tactic out on Adams, but the unswayed photographer had one hell of a truthful comeback: "Saying that I was Hobart Ison's cousin...would put people at ease almost immediately.")

He's been making these trips for 25 years. His photos of some of his subjects date back to 1973; to watch a girl like Tammy grow up is a mesmerizing, unsettling dip into Adams' oeuvre, a 28 Up for the cultural anthropology crowd. Here she is in 1977, age eight, frail and blonde, with such a defensive, dark gleam in her gaze that it caused one psychologist, while looking at the photograph, to say: "Look into her eyes. She knows so much more than she's supposed to at that age,"--the therapist was referring to the likely possibility of neglect and molestation. Then Tammy in 1987, tall and bony, the short sleeves of her dingy shirt revealing a homemade tattoo of a cruciform on her forearm. Her stance is confrontational, her eyes still accusing, only now underscored by deep, dark circles of exhaustion. Next frame: Tammy nine years later, perched like an emaciated bird on a couch, cheekbones threatening to break the skin of her face, her eyes no longer defiant, but totally numb. A rebel flag hangs in the window. In her life, she'd seen her father abuse and shoot her mother, then turn the gun on himself; Tammy herself had been married at 15, abused by her husband, divorced--the mother of seven children by five different men. She supports them all with welfare provisions.

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.

Shelby Lee Adams: Appalachian Legacy is at Photographs Do Not Bend Gallery December 4 through January 16. 3115 Routh, (214) 9969-1852. Adams lectures on his work at The Dallas Museum of Art on Thursday, December 3, at 7 p.m. in the Horchow Auditorium.

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