Best Gallery Show (2002)
Shelby Lee Adams' Modern Appalachia, Photographs Do Not Bend
In some ways, this is the easiest pick. So many of the gallery shows we've reviewed were so weak that the images left our memory banks before the next week's paper hit the streets. Indeed, looking back on the last year, there's only one show from which we remember every single work: Modern Appalachia, Photographs Do Not Bend's show of the photographs of Shelby Lee Adams. There are plenty of photography buffs who believe Adams' work, which focuses on the mountain folk of Appalachia, is too predictable, even clichéd. And his lens does catch its share of 15-year-old mothers and dirty urchins. But Adams' real fascination lies with the old folk, fossilized remnants of a centuries-old way of life. 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--on tiny farms or shotgun houses or plots of land that ascend straight up the mountainside--the majority of photographs were beautifully composed and lit. This is explosive subject matter, potentially lurid, ethically loaded. Yet Adams didn't go for the cheap or sensational, didn't aim to shock. There were 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 didn't exactly sanitize, either. There was poverty, buffoonery and ignorance aplenty in the resulting silver gelatin prints, along with dignity and tenderness. Adams' photos are affectionate glimpses of human folly.