Mountain View

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

By the standards of contemporary photographers, Shelby Lee Adams is a modest man. He dabbles not in the black art of celebrity portraiture, dwells not in the abstract zone, couldn't care less about the zeitgeist. The label that fits best would be "documentary photojournalist," though Adams' work is not quite reportage. His true subject is, in his own words, "the more vulnerable side of the human condition." He has worked in a state mental institution, photographed a South American leper colony and spent nearly half of his 51 years documenting the poor white mountain folk of Appalachia.

This is explosive subject matter, potentially lurid, ethically loaded. Yet Adams doesn't go for the cheap or sensational, doesn't aim to shock. His photographs of Blue Ridge mountain folk don't assault the viewer; there are no Goldin-style portraits in the outhouse, no Sturges-style naked backwoods Lolitas, no Mapplethorpesque exploration of the more exotic customs of the "confirmed bachelors" who populate his photos, no suggestion the sheep are scared. But Adams doesn't exactly sanitize, either. There is poverty, buffoonery and ignorance aplenty in the silver gelatin prints that line the walls at Photographs Do Not Bend, along with dignity and tenderness. Adams' photos are affectionate glimpses of human folly.

The title of the show is "Modern Appalachia," an oxymoron and, in Adams' view, a disappearing one. In his 1998 monograph, Adams laments that mountain folk are going the way of the dodo, their younguns having "abandoned the traditional Appalachian values and embraced the media culture." To be sure, Adams' lens has caught its share of 15-year-old mothers and dirty urchins, but his real fascination lies with the old folk, fossilized remnants of a centuries-old way of life.

"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

The results are spellbinding, little pockets of 19th- and even 18th-century Americana that have survived to this day. The subjects themselves, though simple folk, display a startling range of awareness, appearing at once romantic and emotionally naked, playful and utterly serious, vulnerable and shrewd. Despite being taken in difficult circumstances--at tiny farms or shotgun houses or plots of land that ascend straight up the mountainside--the majority of photographs are beautifully composed and lit.

But the real success of these photos is based less on composition and camera angle than on Adams' rather immodest claim to have resolved the age-old koan for artists who purport to deal in truth: What duties does the reporter (or photographer, or biographer, or portraitist) owe her subject? The shameless toadying of the society portraitist lies at one extreme; at the other, the muckraker's take-no-prisoners approach toward a crooked pol. In between are the hard cases, Adams' habitat. Adams' subjects are in no sense fair game. Natives of a hauntingly beautiful and famously hard terrain, they are for the most part lonely, unsophisticated and curious about strangers bearing photographic equipment. This is not to say just anyone could sally forth into the hills and come out bearing great pictures. "Mountain people," as Adams calls them, are a proud people, a people possessed of shotguns and mangy curs, a people famously touchy about how ethnographers, journalists, social workers and such have portrayed them.

Most pros would simply suck it up, braving this morass in the name of science or art. But Adams has a different shtick. He navigates sticky ethical wickets by claiming his work is a labor of love, not anthropology. Adams was born in Hazard, Kentucky, and raised in part by loving mountain people, his grandparents. As a result, Adams claims to be that rarest of native sons, a white boy bound by race- and class-guilt. Henry Louis Gates once observed that, "[i]f your name is Auchincloss, say, you do not worry overmuch about those impoverished Appalachians who share your Scottish descent..." Au contraire. To this day, Adams splits his time between Boston and the hills of Kentucky. "The mountains and its people are my lifeblood," he has explained, "and I must return regularly for a cleansing."

And so he does. Adams spends half the year photographing his people, and he views the resulting portraits as "collaborations with my subjects." He courts his subjects with introductions and multiple visits, each lasting hours. Adams' portraits are discussed and posed and carefully lit and Polaroid-tested before being shot. "In the middle of the photo session we might eat dinner or go out on the porch and shoot someone's new gun." In the end, he considers himself lucky if "there is one good image." His subjects keep the Polaroids, and they see the final product. Adams insists that no image is published unless the subject approves.

Looking at the results, it's hard to say how much of Adams' shtick is authentic homeboy feeling and how much the old reporter's dodge. In photos of Vertie Slone or works like "Sherman and Family," for example, the viewer senses a long-standing bond and genuine affection between photographer and subject. In others, however, Adams' interest seems almost clinical. As any journalist worth his salt knows, the quickest way to get someone to forgive your press pass is to find some common ground, to convince the prospective interviewee that you're really just like him. Common schools are good, common churches or hometowns better. Adams even turns the story of his cousin Hobart into a trump card. Back in the '60s, Hobart shot and killed a Canadian filmmaker for the crime of photographing Hobart's property without getting consent. (For this, Hobart spent a mere year in the pokey.) "[W]hen I started my own photography work," Adams writes, "this story often came up [and still does], sometimes being presented to me as a threat. Saying that I was Hobart's cousin, however, would put people at ease almost immediately."

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."

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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