Mountain View

Photographer Shelby Lee Adams captures a vanishing way of life in Appalachia

In Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Joan Didion argued that "reporters are always selling someone out." Lillian Ross articulated the other school of thought in her classic On Reporting, wherein Ross claims that reporters owe their subjects a duty of loyalty, and a certain amount of protection from being portrayed too harshly does not compromise the search for truth. This position has been taken to its illogical extreme by photographers like Edward Curtis, who collaborated with his American Indian subjects to erase any traces of modern life from the picture frame, to re-create a past that may, or may not, have existed.

Adams' photographs often seem to careen wildly between these ethical poles. In his earlier work, especially, Adams was not beyond the occasional re-created or staged event. More often, however, he has been criticized for coming too close to Didion's steely advice on how to treat sources. In part, this is because he retains the outsider's sharp eye for juxtapositions and for the absurd, lending his work, at times, an amateur-anthropologist-from-Pluto feel. He catches the cultural signifiers: the guitars and framed Jesus pictures, the menacing signs and the dolls and the satellite dishes, dogs and people breeding like livestock, the livestock living as household pets. He understands and shows us how the people live, the importance of public spaces like the local church and the front porch, the importance of social rituals like Halloween.

Not surprisingly, Adams reacts strongly to criticism that he is not shielding his subjects from themselves, not cleaning them up for the camera à la Curtis: "To present a sanitized, idealized view of Appalachia," he asserts, "would be to indulge in stereotyping of another kind." Whatever the ethics, these strangers-from-a-strange-land photos, like "Donnie With Baby and Cows," are his very best, followed closely by those for which the viewer can supply a universal narrative, efforts like "Brother Baker, Persimmon Fork Church" or "Rose Marie."

"Donnie With Baby and Cows," a 1999 silver gelatin print by Shelby Lee Adams, now on view at Photographs Do Not Bend
"Donnie With Baby and Cows," a 1999 silver gelatin print by Shelby Lee Adams, now on view at Photographs Do Not Bend

In the end, the ethical criticism fails for a simple reason: Judging from the photos, Adams' relationship with his subjects is an arm's length exchange. Whatever means Adams uses to get past the front porch, whatever relationship develops, there remains a distance. The subjects get to keep their dignity, and Adams gets to keep his satirist's sharp eye. In fact, Adams himself seems to miss the importance of this aspect. "What fascinates and sustains me are these independent mountain people who give of themselves honestly and openly," he writes. "They do not wear the masks so many of us show the photographer's lens; they are secure in who they are." Maybe so. And then again, there is an only-a-Jew-can-call-another-kike sense in some of the photos, a feeling that Adams' subjects are playing to the camera, hamming it up a little, making like extras from Deliverance and enjoying it. Even this has faded somewhat over time; in keeping with the theme of the show, the most recent photographs feature fewer hogs' heads, more satellite dishes and all-terrain vehicles and dirt bikes. Such is progress, even in the mountains. Y'all come.

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