The Oldest Established Really Important Film Club: The True Meaning of Pictures (2002)

Director: Jennifer Baichwal



By Marilyn Ferdinand

There’s a saying that a picture’s worth 1,000 words. While this statement is a bit vague, I think I’m safe in saying that, generally, it means that a photograph can convey more information instantaneously than can be gotten from reading 1,000 words on the same subject. Photos are documents—living memories, even—of what we looked like at a certain time of life, where we’ve been, things we’ve seen, and people we knew and met. They tell us truths about ourselves that the vagaries of memory may have erased or distorted. They bear witness. But is a photograph a reliable witness? I’m going to quote from an interview I conducted with Errol Morris earlier this year regarding his film Standard Operating Procedure (2008) that sums up his belief about information contained within the borders of a photograph. My questions are bolded:

But you talk about putting the photographs in a context, otherwise we don’t really understand what we’re seeing.

And to that end, am I required to interview every single person in the U.S. government? You have so much god-damned context. America puzzles me at the moment. There is an immense amount written about the higher-ups. What the fuck does America need to be convinced that the material is staring them in the face? Do they have to be hit over the head with a smoking gun? What would you like? What is your dream interview that you would have liked to have heard in this particular movie to clarify things for you?

Not to clarify…

Then to do what?

If you’re only going to present, just as in a trial, only the evidence that the lawyers want you to hear. I’ve been on a jury, and I had lots of questions that I was not allowed to ask. I only got what they wanted me to see, and from my point of view, if I just look at what these people are saying and what they’re doing…

If it seems like I’m saying they’re lily white, I’m not saying that, and my apologies, because I’m not making that argument. But I’m making a somewhat different argument that…hard to know where to even start. You look at a photograph, you think you know what the photograph is about. You don’t. You look at the photograph of Sabrina Harman smiling next to Al-Jamadi’s corpse, you think she’s responsible for the murder. She isn’t.

Anyone who makes pictures, still or moving, and anyone who looks at them create consciously or unconsciously a context for interpreting those images. That context may be as simple as “that’s pretty” or “that’s ugly” based on the image and one’s visceral or instinctual reaction to it. In the case of art photography, which is designed to do more than document reality, more complex contextualization often is required to interpret not only the “text” but the “subtext.” And without those 1,000 words, viewers must rely on their storehouse of information about subjects similar to those depicted by the photographer. This fact is precisely what makes Shelby Lee Adams’ photographs of poor residents of the hollers of the Appalachian Mountains near Hazard, Kentucky, controversial in the larger world.

Noted Canadian documentarian Jennifer Baichwal traveled with Adams to Appalachia to talk with and film him and his models at work and at rest. She also interviewed a sociologist, several art critics and photographers, and one former holler resident to provide the widest possible context for the viewers of her film to decide for themselves, as one holler resident puts it, “the true meaning of pictures.”

The opening shot is a straight-down aerial view of a dense forest. It is lushly green with shadows and shapes suggesting texture and depth, but like the screen on which it is viewed, it remains essentially flat and free of telling information. We bring our knowledge of the film we are watching to it; thus, we assume it is in Appalachia, though it could just as easily be a wood in Baichwal’s native Quebec.


Our impression is reinforced by the sound of the voiceover that brought us into the film and that is now accompanying this image—a man speaking in the halting, ecstatic rhythms of a rural preacher. We move down into and through the forest and then view a series of still photographs: two weathered men leaning their bent elbows on the seat of the same chair, their bibles open, their hands clasped in prayer; a series of family portraits, including one with cows; lone images of an ancient woman, a white-bearded man holding a banjo. Finally, the camera moves into the black corner of one image, and we are transported to an art gallery full of city sophisticates looking at these photographs. One woman waves her hand in front of the picture with the cows, suggesting something about the composition to her companion.

Shelby%2010.jpgMore stills, including one of a man holding a hog’s head and smiling for the camera. An unidentified voice of a man saying he loves Shelby Lee Adams’ photographs, though he can’t stand to look at them for very long. “But I remember the people in them,” he says, and to him that’s just as important as the pictures themselves. Then Baichwal cuts to Adams instructing some Appalachian men on how to stand for a photo he is making; he speaks to them in a slangy, accented voice that matches their own. In three short minutes, Baichwal has deftly introduced us to the two worlds in which Adams operates, the photos he makes, the toughness of their content, and finally, to the man himself.

During the first part of the film, we spend considerable time with the Napier family, particularly with matriarch Berthie. She’s a tough woman who cut timber alongside her husband, bore him 14 children, and watched 10 of them die. She frequently tucks a pipe into her pinched mouth surrounded by rivulets of skin and oversize moles. Adams complains about concerns Mammy%20Yokum.GIFpeople have expressed that Berthie resembles Mammy Yokum from L’il Abner. It’s not his fault that comic strip was drawn, apparently to reflect real life. The real problem is not the drawing but the caricature of mountain people as dumb hicks fit for the funnies. One could argue that the Blondie comic strip similarly lampoons the middle-class readers of L’il Abner and even consumers of Adams’ picture books. Are Adams’ critics just blowing PC smoke?


New York Times critic Vicki Goldberg complains about Adams’ set-ups that purport to show authentic holler life, but actually are historical recreations. Specifically, she mentions the hog butchering picture (above). Indeed, we see Adams’ own archival footage of the slaughter, with the Napiers explaining how it used to be done and then standing by during each part of the process as Adams films and snaps. The final photo is a rather gruesome family portrait, with the hog’s head resting in the foreground in a metal pan. There certainly are a number of ways to interpret this photo. It’s unlikely that the family would have posed with a hog in this way had they been able to photograph themselves; they’d be more likely to photograph the special occasion that surely would have required the slaughter of the costly animal the Napiers were furnished for the photo shoot because they were too poor to own it themselves. As I viewed the photo, I was reminded more of the sport fishermen and hunters—not poor by any means—who pose with their mammoth kills, or of the photos of picnics with a lynched man in the background. Goldberg’s objection to this photo as “set up” ignores the fact that photographers routinely stage their subjects. That Adams may be critiquing the consumers of this photo seems to escape sophisticated readers such as critic A. D. Coleman, who says, (correction from previous version) “These are late 20th century, early 21st century photographs with a great deal of visual sophistication to them, and I think that they call for a very sophisticated kind of reading. And I’m not sure that the people he’s photographing have the education, the visual educational background to understand how these pictures read. And if that’s patronizing, I apologize for it, but I just think it’s so.”

One critic who can’t be contradicted so easily is Dwight Billings, then a professor of sociology at the University of Kentucky: “The problem for me with these portraits is they certainly are telling stories, but the stories are kind of left to the reader to imagine, and we know what the reader is imbued with to imagine: a hundred years of stereotypes.” Baichwal immediately cuts in scenes from Deliverance showing the retarded banjo picker and the violent mountain men attacking Jon Voight and his friends. It’s true—popular culture hasn’t done holler dwellers any favors.


Another authoritative critic of Adams’ work is Louise Hall, a holler native who escaped its poverty, got an education, and moved into the larger world. She is appalled by a photo Adams took of her beautiful, younger sister that shows her leaning through a torn screen door with a man smiling against a wall in the background. While Hall seems to think the poverty of the picture takes away from the girl’s beauty (and most likely finds embarrassing now that she has felt the sting of the outside world’s regard for her place of origin), I find this photo objectionable as a stereotype associated with child sexual abuse. The man in the background doesn’t appear just to be smiling—he seems to be leering. It would take a lot of exposure to the peculiar smiles of the holler dwellers to see this smile as normal and friendly, and I don’t imagine the casual observer would have that opportunity. Adams’ eerie use of lighting to accentuate his black-and-white photography gives this and many of his other photos a sinister, noir-like quality.


Yet, it is Shelby Lee Adams himself who most calls his work into question. He says his family moved around a lot when he was growing up. But then he establishes his legitimacy as an insider by saying he grew up in Hazard. Which is it? He also says he was of the middle class in Hazard and came into contact with the holler folk, not that he actually lived among them and called them friend. He says he never publishes a photo not approved by his subjects; he certainly can’t afford to antagonize them, he says. He says he has made thousands of pictures that he gives to his subjects—a generous gesture, I suppose, given that he makes a fortune off the ones he makes for himself. (I have been able to find no evidence that he shares his economic good fortune with his subjects.) His accent and folksy talk disappear when he’s alone with Baichwal and her crew. He has a foot in both worlds, and yet he stands apart, insecurely, from them both. Why? Because he’s an artist? Because he’s a con man?


Adams’ introduction to his book Appalachian Portraits says, “My work has been an artist’s search for a deeper understanding of my heritage and myself, using photography as a medium and the Appalachian people as collaborators with their own desires to communicate. I hope my photographs confront viewers, reminding them of their own vulnerability and humanity. I hope, too, that viewers will see in these photographs something of the abiding strength and resourcefulness and dignity of the mountain people.” There’s no question that he accomplishes most of these aims. Certainly, he records the dignity and strength of many of these people, from the awe-inspiring portraits of coal miners, to the community-centered home funerals, to the majestic landscapes of which they are a part.

He also plumbs some very disturbing depths, using, for example, a family with retarded and deformed “children” in diapers to examine his relationship to Christianity. Perhaps the holler dwellers were the stuff of nightmares during his years in Hazard, frightening images he recreates in order to exorcise them. Perhaps he finds appalling a community that accepts child brides and endless pregnancies that use up and kill its women. He almost never shoots people smiling, adding to the negative impression of his vision. And if his subjects don’t see these impulses in his work, even if they concede the man the right to make a living (something many of them can’t) and like the pictures he publishes, is Coleman right that they are being exploited? Are 1,000 words from Mein Kampf equal to 1,000 words from Othello? Do the two Adamses—Ansel and Shelby Lee—occupy the same moral universe?


It’s clear from watching the comprehensive documentary Jennifer Baichwal has executed that these holler dwellers are well served by her more rounded view of their lives, the circumstances that made them and keep them grindingly poor, and an extended exposure to the people who might emerge from a Shelby Lee Adams photo primarily as grotesque. Of course, Baichwal’s camera can be deceptive, too, recording some moments, choosing to leave out others. And much can be done through the editing process—the order in which Adams reveals the seeming contradictions of his early years may have been changed for dramatic or persuasive impact. The shocking picture of the man and the pig’s head at the top of this review is part of a series of photos Adams took of people with animals; most of them are touching and even sweet. Baichwal spends a good deal of time on Adams’ work with the snake-handling sect of the Pentecostal church, which certainly tips the balance of the film into the bizarre; yet Adams’ photos of people and animals show dogs, cats, geese, chickens as well as snakes. I have a photo of my brother holding a boa constrictor as part of his docent duties for the Lincoln Park Zoo. Without his docent’s uniform, he might look just as bizarre.

Baichwal ends her film as she started it, with the implacable treetops filling her frame. Her provocative challenge remains suspended in air. What is the true meaning of pictures?

Visit Shelby Lee Adams’ home page here.

  • Rick Olson spoke:
    13th/01/2009 to 8:17 am

    Does she have a website? I can’t find one …

  • Rick Olson spoke:
    13th/01/2009 to 8:18 am

    oops, that “does she have a website” was for Jonathan

  • Rick Olson spoke:
    13th/01/2009 to 8:25 am

    all photographs whether they are meant to document or are artistic renderings have to be looked at for what they are. A representation of the truth.
    But the problem with photos is that they look like the truth, most folks take them at their “word.” Do artists like Adams have the responsibility to set them into a context so that people who might view them know they’re not? Or is it “viewer-beware?”
    I contrast this with nature documentaries, which are often staged, made to tell a story of the director’s choosing, and how in the past they have contributed to the humanization of nature (and thus to our environmental crisis as well). People — because of the documentary form — think that it’s reality, when it’s furthest from the truth.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    13th/01/2009 to 8:58 am

    My own site put my comment from last night into spam. Here it is and then some:
    Kassy – Thanks for that link to the interview. I think it contributes to the discussion quite nicely.
    I do think Baichwal tried to produce a rounded view of this issue, and succeeded to a large extent. But I think she falls victim to lure of the bizarre. Perhaps she dwells on these aspects – the hog butchering, the snake handlers, the Halls – because these are perhaps the most controversial aspects of Adams’ work.
    Personally, I think the hog butchering was a nonissue, and I found the Napiers’ story both interesting and moving. The snake handlers I’ve seen many times before – nothing new here for me. I find that neither Adams’ photos nor Baichwal’s film provided a positive view of these people. Adams’ snake handling, I thought, revealed a lot about their devotion. It’s ok to handle a snake for a picture, but where’s the religion in that?
    The Halls provided the toughest part of this film for me. I loved the closeness of the family, but I also thought that photographing and filming the children in their diapers was rather an invasion of privacy. Would he have done the same with the ladies of the house? These were not real children; just adults with minds that had not developed.
    Bob – I read your review before finishing my own, so consider yourself an inspiration.
    Joe – Thanks for joining the discussion.
    I think the interview points out for me why Adams may be a bit cagey about his background. If his father was embarrassed by his origins, that certainly would have been communicated to Adams. Perhaps Adams did just as his father wanted – got out of there. It is natural to be curious about a place that is part of you and that you have discarded at someone else’s behest. Perhaps there is even a guilt to wanting to bring these people into his life in this way. Nonetheless, the demons are still there. You might even say that Adams may have come to the hollers with the same morbid curiosity that some consumers of his photos have. I’m sure that has changed, but the impulse might have been there.
    Look at us. I know I assigned this film, so you all had to watch it. But look how many people have gone looking for more about Baichwal and Adams. This is the kind of work that compels you to look beyond the film itself. I agree that that this is what documentaries do when they are at their best.

  • Jonathan Lapper spoke:
    13th/01/2009 to 9:43 am

    Rick – Sorry, I’ve been on and off-line sporadically today (so I’m glad this started yesterday and not today) due to personal business I have to attend to. I don’t know if she has a website or not. I pulled the quote from this interview I found online.

  • Jonathan Lapper spoke:
    13th/01/2009 to 10:46 am

    As one of the “by default” administrators of the club along with Rick and Marilyn, I just want to thank everyone who participated. Not that it’s over mind you, please everyone (Fox, Bill, Bob, Kassy, Flickhead, Ed, Joe, Pat and anyone else) feel free to continue.
    Although I must say, even if it was wrapped up at this point, I can’t imagine being disappointed with a 155 comment discussion of this film (and not 155 like Rick and I sometimes get where the first 30 comments discuss the film and the next 125 soar off into wild joke-filled tangents). From comment 1 to comment 155 this was an in-depth discussion of this fascinating documentary selected by Marilyn and I’m so happy it was such a great success. I don’t feel I have gotten to the heart of a film that well in a long time. It’s great when we do it with reviews from time to time on our blogs but this is different because we all took the time to watch the same film and bring our ideas, insights and questions to the table.
    Thanks again everyone. I only hope this level of discussion and enthusiasm continues for the next one and each one after that.

  • Pat spoke:
    13th/01/2009 to 10:55 am

    And I would just like to add my thanks to Marilyn for her selection.
    I like being challenged and asked to “dig deeper” into my responses to a film, and this comments thread certainly forced me to do that. I regret that my work schedule didn’t allow me to participate fully in the ‘debate,’ but I enjoyed it anyway.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    13th/01/2009 to 11:05 am

    I certainly am gratified that my judgment in choosing this film was justified by the interest and thought-provoking comments it elicited. I’m also glad that everyone seems to have genuinely liked this documentary.
    I do think this conversation has other places to go. I still would like everyone’s opinion on what they think the true meaning of pictures might be.
    For myself, I’m not sure there is one true meaning, but I know one thing – I don’t believe they are worth 1,000 words most of the time. Think about the famous photos, say, the sailor kissing the nurse at the end of WWII. That picture conveyed an emotion that was completely true. But the photo Errol Morris mentioned of Sabrina Harman smiling and giving the thumbs-up sign over a corpse did not reflect her real feelings. It was a lie. I believe text will always be essential to documentary and some interpretive photography.

  • Jonathan Lapper spoke:
    13th/01/2009 to 11:33 am

    The true meaning of pictures is for me impossible to ascertain. I just know they have a power beyond words in most cases which is why they can elicit such an emotional response from people. In my endless readings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki one thing that has always struck me was the (little reported) fact that thousands of feet of color and black and white film shot by the American military and Japanese civilians of the immediate aftermath were either classified or destroyed. They didn’t mind the aerial shots of the flattened and burned out cities but they didn’t want any “on the ground” shots and they certainly didn’t want them in color. Most of the footage shot by Japanese civilians was seized and destroyed, other black and white footage was kept and later returned to Japan in the sixties. Only a scant few minutes of the American footage has ever been shown.
    Now, the thing is, you can read in detail about everything that occurred on those two days in August 1945. You can read eyewitness accounts, you can read interviews (starting with those done by John Hersey in 1945), you can read every, single solitary last detail of what happened in those two cities. That doesn’t seem to be a problem. But pictures of them? They’re still being suppressed. Why? I think we all know why. A picture carries so much more emotional weight.
    Think about everything we have read about the Civil War or World War I or II. I know, intellectually, that Antietam was the bloodiest battle of the Civil War and the bloodiest in American History period (23,000 casualties). But emotionally there is a disconnect. It’s information but not visual information. What if I were to see color film footage of that battle? How much closer would that bring it home to me? Or World War II? It’s the bloodiest war in history and I’ve always known that but wars like Vietnam almost seem worse because of the preponderance of footage available. But then when I watched Ken Burns World War II documentary last year and saw previously unseen photos of European towns with close-ups of dead babies with missing faces and torsos and limbs strewn around them, the reality of how devastating that war was finally became a visual reality as well.
    Pictures are stunning in their power which is why we debated Adams work so vigorously. Pictures can tell you a lot or a little and the photographer decides that most of the time.

  • Bob Turnbull spoke:
    13th/01/2009 to 11:45 am

    One more comment about Baichwal…I really do think she was using Adams’ work as a launching point for the more general discussion of art and its context. So though there are many things about Adams himself that I agree would be interesting to learn (e.g. questioning his personal motives, etc.), I don’t think Baichwal cares to really dive too deeply into those waters (so I’m not overly concerned that she doesn’t challenge him too much). I do agree that she somewhat leans towards Adams’ side of things (particularly given Fox’s point about the editing), but again I think its in service to her wider thoughts about art – the viewer will put their own context around it no matter what you do, so the artist shouldn’t be handcuffed. Granted there’s probably a couple of counter-examples to that, but I think the general holds.
    I think a picture is absolutely worth a thousand words. It’s just that it may not be the 1000 you were planning. Nor will they be the same as someone else viewing it. The Harman photo is an interesting case in that you could certainly use it to try to point out a greater truth – but now it turns into more of a tool than a moment in time or piece of art. So that whole “truth” thing becomes pretty murky (and that’s even avoiding the digital manipulation of photos that is common place these days).
    They can still be pretty beautiful to look at though.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    13th/01/2009 to 11:51 am

    That’s exactly right, Jonathan. A photo has the power to raise strong emotions that even other types of visual media, including film in many cases, cannot. That’s why I think it is important for a photographer like Adams to be a responsible steward of his work, or if he lacks sufficient distance, to allow an editor to do so. He does give the names of his subjects as the titles of many of his photos, and names are powerful, but it’s not always enough. When I see the words “coal miner,” they mean something to me. What if he had put a little emotion into some of his titles, like a term of affection for the Hall kids? The titles he has are like news captions, and these are not strictly documentary photos.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    13th/01/2009 to 11:59 am

    Bob – If it’s not the 1,000 you were planning on, or near enough, then the picture is not doing its job as a document. If a photo lies – and they do lie without necessarily meaning to – there’s no verbiage to say, “that’s not what I meant.” An honest artist or communicator will want to be understood at some truthful level, I think, and it’s all the more important with something as slippery as a photograph, which has the aura of truth and reality that a painting does not.

  • Bob Turnbull spoke:
    13th/01/2009 to 2:33 pm

    Oh, I don’t disagree with you about how photos can lie. If you expect to deliver a specific message, statement or document through them, then you had better be careful. Of course, even then you can’t guarantee anything. People will use their own backgrounds to read what they want into something (e.g. the recent video of Obama with the 4 previous presidents could be read in a variety of different ways depending on your affiliation – ie. their body language means ‘x’).
    I don’t think Adams is purely trying to document though. You can disagree with what he is doing and whether he is “using” these people, but I think he finds something interesting about their faces, their homes and their circumstances that inspire him to create these pictures. They aren’t documents – they are creations. Granted, I agree with you that it is a shame that you don’t get some of that background to get more of the story (ie. the Hall kids). I’m not completely sure he cares though…

  • Marilyn spoke:
    13th/01/2009 to 2:45 pm

    Bob – I agree that the faces of the holler dwellers are amazing. I myself used to do pencil sketches, and I was always drawn to copy photos of old people. The shadows and highlights attracted me. Rembrandt did us all a favor by adding dimension with light and shadow to his paintings.
    As for whether he cares about presenting truth, you may be right. I find it disingenuous that he suggests that the subjects are collaborators with their own desires to communicate, yet he is the one who controls what’s in the frame and what it looks like. Here again we come to the idea of whether they are truly giving informed consent when they OK these photos for publication. Why doesn’t he let them add narrative underneath the pictures to ensure that they really do get across what they want to. Baichwal at least does that.

  • Rick Olson spoke:
    13th/01/2009 to 3:04 pm

    I just want to chime in here … What is the true meaning of pictures? Perhaps the closest thing that we can say is that they are a 3-way (or more?) negotiation between picture-taker (artist), picture-consumer/viewer (us) and picture subject. Each has a role to play, and they are not hard-and-fast. They all have control over the process of production and consumption, including the possibility to manipulate it, but at different times.
    The one with the most pervasive control, of course, is the artist. She/he has multiple points during the process of production and consumption at which to influence it, from choice of subject to composition to printing to exhibition.
    Perhaps the ones with the least amount of control are the subjects. They have the initial point at which they might refuse, or refuse to sign a release, but after that, nothing but the courts, which are slow and expensive. It is why there is such concern expressed in the film and by the critics, and on this discussion stream.
    In the case of the holler-dwellers, their apparent apparent lack of sophistication seems to lend an urgency to this, but it also is an occasion for condescension, of which I detect a fair amount in the comments of the critics (and in our discussion).
    It has been a great discussion, and I hope it continues at some level. I wish I could have participated a little more in the heart of it yesterday, but I had to be out of the office and away from the computer for much of the time. I think we have done good.
    And for the record, I think Bob is right: pictures are worth at least a thousand words, but they might not be the ones you would choose.

  • Rick Olson spoke:
    13th/01/2009 to 3:15 pm

    If it’s not the 1,000 you were planning on, or near enough, then the picture is not doing its job as a document.
    Let’s posit a test: what if there were the perfect photo, that said exactly what the artist wanted it to. She/he printed it with that in mind, and by some objective measure (a truth-o-meter) we can tell it says exactly what the artist intends.
    Then, when she/he hangs it in a gallery, to the first person that comes along, it will mean something different. All perception of meaning is filtered through a person’s context, therefore it will not mean what the artist intended.
    It will never be the 1,000 words the artist was planning on.

  • Fox spoke:
    13th/01/2009 to 4:29 pm

    Hey dudes-
    Just wanted to drop something in here that I just experienced.
    I went to Shelby Lee Adams’ blog (the one that Marilyn links to) and noticed a newer color picture of the same guy that was photographed holding a hogs’ head back in 1992.
    Here is the B & W one from 1992
    Here is the color from 2008
    Now, obviously, the B & W is artistically framed, lit, etc. and the other just seems like a friendly snapshot, but I think the distinction of emotion and feeling between the two is pretty strong.
    HOWEVER… I wanted to add this…
    Yesterday, Marilyn said:
    I looked at all the photos again, and they just didn’t say anything to me. They seemed normal, not normal, I don’t know. I feel desensitized to them…
    I felt something similar when I went to Adams’ blog and looked at additional photos to the ones that Baichwal used in her doc. The photos didn’t come off nearly as negative to me as they did in the film. Was this b/c as a group they had a different impact? Was it – as Marilyn said – that I started to feel desensitized after so much viewing? I don’t know. I don’t know if this has an impact on my opinion of Shelby Adams’ work or not. It’s too early to tell. But I thought it was interesting.

  • Joe Campanella spoke:
    13th/01/2009 to 4:39 pm

    Pictures are representations of reality. They are the world through the eyes of another. And that eye is the one that chooses how much that reality is going to be distorted in the process.
    Like I said before, all pictures, documentary/other, are not actual representations of reality.
    It can be drastic, such as photoshopping out cars, buildings or people. Or it can be subtle, choosing a certain focal length lens or f-stop in order to get the desired effect.
    I recently had an argument with a friend of mine that pictures/films have more emotional power than books, so I believe I side with Lapper on that subject.
    I also love the way Marilyn describes photographs at the beginning of her post. I believe it sums up my feelings, even with the question at the end…
    Photos are documents—living memories, even—of what we looked like at a certain time of life, where we’ve been, things we’ve seen, and people we knew and met. They tell us truths about ourselves that the vagaries of memory may have erased or distorted. They bear witness. But is a photograph a reliable witness?
    I think we’d all be silly if we didn’t marry these ideas with motion pictures. I think, after all, these are the reasons we all love them so much.

  • Joe Campanella spoke:
    13th/01/2009 to 4:44 pm

    Nice find Fox! I agree with you 100%. That second snapshot is much friendlier. Kind of like photographing a loving Uncle.
    I also had the same experience with looking at Adams blog. The photos presented there are a strange joy to look at.
    I disagree with you, which is a rarity. I do find that a picture is worth a thousand words. Just look at how many are on this discussion board!
    Just because someone may have a different context in which they see the photograph, doesn’t mean they won’t have a lot to say about it. I think your point proves that a picture is worth more than a thousand words. Depending on how many see it.

  • Rick Olson spoke:
    13th/01/2009 to 7:39 pm

    Joe, that was my point: pictures say a lot, but you can’t pin down ahead of time what that’s going to be to any given observer.

  • kassy spoke:
    13th/01/2009 to 8:13 pm

    I know we’ve kind of moved on a little bit, but I wasn’t able to join in from work today. I found this quote from Baichwal on Docurama’s website.
    “There are a few reasons why I felt compelled to make THE TRUE MEANING OF PICTURES. First, Appalachian people are marginal by circumstance but also by choice, rejecting the mores and values of dominant American culture. American culture is so monolithic around the world that to find an enclave in the country itself which remains suceptical is extraordinary, and for some reason I am drawn to subjects who in one form or another reject it.”
    Regarding the true meaning of pictures, I’m not sure we can define a true meaning. It reminds me a little of being taught symbolism in lit class. Unless the author is right there telling me exactly what he meant, all I’m being taught is someone’s interpretation and I’d prefer to go with my own. Look at the different reactions we had to the picture of the girl and the screen door. Maybe pictures don’t have a meaning as much as they have a purpose; some are memories or keepsakes, some are intended to be thought-provoking. I’m not sure if I’m making any sense.

  • Jonathan Lapper spoke:
    13th/01/2009 to 8:14 pm

    Joe and Fox – I feel the same way about the pics on his blog as well as the contrasting color video footage in the movie with the b & w pics. I think they all show how much emotional direction a photographer can point you in by how they set up, frame and light a shot.

  • Jonathan Lapper spoke:
    13th/01/2009 to 8:17 pm

    Kassy, you’re making perfect sense. I like the distinction of pictures perhaps not having a meaning but definitely having a purpose. As I see it, the purpose lies with the photographer (he wants to highlight Appalachian residents) and the meaning lies with the viewer, and we all bring our own experiences to the meaning we provide them.

  • Joe Campanella spoke:
    14th/01/2009 to 1:09 am

    Well than I agree with you Rick. Pictures, at least for me, are the most engaging of art forms because they at once a document of the real world and a representation of it.
    The fact that people have different responses to each picture makes them all the more meaningful.
    The point I’m trying to make here is that the true meaning behind photography is to spark up these kinds of emotional debates. To get people talking.
    Also, I’d like to share this quote from someone I don’t know but I’ve been thinking about it since Marilyn brought up the 1,000 words metaphor.
    “If a picture is worth a 1,000 words, a motion picture is worth 24,000 a second.”
    I’m sure I can google the author of that fine sentence, but it’s late and I’m tired. Until tomorrow!

  • MovieMan0283 spoke:
    14th/01/2009 to 12:47 pm

    A good picture is worth 1,000 words and a good post is worth (at least) 174 comments – if someone’s coined that phrase already, forgive me – I haven’t read all the comments yet. Wow!
    Anyway, I have read the first one and I find myself drawing somewhat close to bill r.’s opinion. I think a good deal of the handwringing over Adams’ exploitation (or lack thereof) could be read as narcissistic – the assumption that the reactions of a “sophisticated” audience are what matters (this is kind of similar to the way the most vociferous critics of “hipsters” are often “hipsters” themselves – most people outside of that world don’t care enough to be offended by this particular subculture or aesthetic).
    Then again, one could argue that Adams’ work is created primarily for these types of audiences, and thus it’s perfectly logical to give precedence to how “sophisticates” react. Anyway, all very compelling grist for the mill. As I don’t have much of a grounding in photographic history nor photographic theory (except inasmuch as it relates to the movies) I can’t go too much further than this right now.
    But keep up the good work.
    Also, I have heard that L’il Abner is based on the denizens of Seabrook, NH though as I grew up in close proximity to this community, it may just be local legend.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    14th/01/2009 to 2:06 pm

    Thanks, MovieMan. This is kind of amazing to me.
    One thing we don’t get in this film is the POV of photography and picture-book buyers–the sophisticates–only critics and other photographers. I imagine that Adams’ buyer demographic might include people who collect outsider art. Although Adams certainly doesn’t present a naive or amateur quality, his subject matter would coordinate nicely with a naive/outsider art collection. It would be intersting if Baichwal did a follow-up from the other side of the fence, so to speak.

  • Jim spoke:
    24th/06/2010 to 3:08 am

    Where to start?
    First off Shelby Adams is without question a con man. He grew up in Premium KY at Johnsons Frk. You can go there today and ask around and the older locals will gladly tell you all about him and his cons. His own family will tell you he’s no more than a con man; some are so embarrassed by him that they won’t speak to him. The people he’s agedly been friends with for years taking there photos to tell a story, there all staged. How do I know, I’m related a couple of them. And have firsthand knowledge of him. He gives his subjects a minuscule amount (20.00 or less) of money and in some in some rare cases a copy of the picture.

  • Ann spoke:
    27th/02/2012 to 1:50 pm

    I have no knowledge about Appalachia, or Shelby Adams but I will say this about his shifting accent: I grew up in Mississippi, and had a thick as hell accent. I joined the military, and for the most part lost it. But whenever I go home I notice I reclaim a bit of it. The thicker the accent of the people back home I talk to, the more ‘country’ I start to talk. I always been something I’ve done, but I’ve never consciously tried to manipulate it one way or the other.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    27th/02/2012 to 1:59 pm

    Ann – Of course, you’re right. Many people fall back into their accents and word use when they are around people from their own background. It would be very hard to know if Adams was putting on the accent or slipping back into it. I tend to be more sympathetic to him than some of the people in this film. I’m not sure what makes photography more criticizable than, say, a painting that accurately depicts a model doing something he or she might not like.

  • A. D. Coleman spoke:
    24th/01/2014 to 4:16 pm

    Just came across this review, with the following passage attributing a quote to me:

    “That Adams may be critiquing the consumers of this photo seems to escape sophisticated readers such as critic A. D. Coleman, who says, “I’m sorry, but these people aren’t sophisticated enough to know when they’re being exploited.”

    In actual fact, I don’t say that anywhere in the film. In my experience, making up quotes and putting them in people’s mouths isn’t a one-off; it’s a habit. Your readers should approach your work in that light.

    This specious instance of your professional irresponsibility has been picked up and circulated elsewhere online. You’ve disgraced yourselves as cultural journalists and critics. Shame on you both.

  • A. D. Coleman spoke:
    26th/01/2014 to 8:09 pm

    I’ve received your emailed apology. Thank you for correcting the quotation you falsely attributed to me in the original version of your post.

    Per your email, putting quotation marks around words does indeed “ma[ke] it seem as though” you are “quot[ing someone] verbatim.” Indeed, it doesn’t just “make it seem” that way; from both a journalistic and a legal standpoint, that’s exactly what it indicates, and how it’s commonly understood. I’m surprised that this understanding had escaped you until now, though I’m pleased to have brought you to it, even if belatedly.

    Having no idea how you and your partner in this project divide up the editorial chores, I assumed you shared them equally, and took equal responsibility for the site’s excesses. My apologies for implicating him in your misdeeds. With that said, when two people jointly publish a blog, the misbehavior of one reflects badly on the other.

    However, you haven’t resolved all your problems merely by quoting me accurately.

    1. In the sentences just preceding that quote, you discuss a particular Adams photo at length — the hog-slaughtering image. You then precede your now-correct quote of my words by saying, “That Adams may be critiquing the consumers of this photo seems to escape sophisticated readers such as critic A. D. Coleman, who says . . .” But what follows is not what I actually said in the film about this photo. Slyly, you introduce something I said elsewhere in the film, speaking about Adams’s work in general terms, while implyiing contextually that I made that comment about that particular image.

    Here’s all I say about that hog-slaughtering photo in the film: “On some unconscious level, a lot of people do realize this doesn’t quite look like your average documentary photo — why doesn’t it? It’s not that there isn’t information in there. This family did look that way that day. But they looked that way standing in front of Shelby Lee Adams’s large-format camera with Shelby Lee Adams’s light on them. And that has changed everything, even if we don’t know that he bought the pig, and arranged the butchering, and all that stuff.” From that brief snippet (extracted from several hours of footage Baichwal shot of me), how could you possibly know what does or doesn’t “escape me” about this specific image?

    2. Nowhere do you explain how this photograph (or any photograph) can “critique” its viewers. Please elucidate.

    3. How do you conclude that you’ve “contradicted [me] so easily” when you haven’t contradicted me in any way whatsoever?

    You’ve had two chances now to put the actual words I spoke on the filmic record about that photo into your review. The first time you simply made something up to suit your fancy, and put your words in my mouth. The second time, instead of using what I actually said about that photo, you substituted something else I said on a broader subject.

    As someone who’s published professionally as a critic since 1967, and clearly has a more finely honed sense of the ethics of criticism than you do, I repeat: Shame on you. You’re a disgrace to the profession.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    26th/01/2014 to 8:53 pm

    Mr. Coleman – I don’t know why you are coming after me with such vehemence. I do think you’re a snob, and your comments about the lack of visual sophistication of the subjects of this film implies that there is only one reading of these photos, all of these photos. That, to me, says quite a bit about you as a critic, that you feel you have the only sophisticated reading of a photo. In fact, you have your own point of view of how the photos will be interpreted, that of someone outside the holler who looks at these images and finds them disturbing. The entire documentary takes a look at what the pictures really mean, and there is no one right answer to this question. You, on the other hand, have decided that the holler dwellers can’t possibly know how to read these pictures. That is cultural bias of the first degree. I’m not beholden to you to quote you chapter and verse, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with what I have written except that you have chosen to take offense at everything now, even when I acknowledge my error, apologized, and corrected it. Shame on you for your ungenerous attitude and snobbery.

  • Michael spoke:
    7th/03/2014 to 3:49 pm

    I think there’s a lot to be gained by looking at Adams’ more commercial editorial work, at

    In that work there’s the much of the same noir mood and lighting, and uncomfortable posing as in the Kentucky work. Is the incredibly awkward second photo, Angaleena Presley, Musician, or the threatening one of naturalist/writer Gordon Grice (most photos of him look more like this one: ), that much different from those of the Napier family? I come away from it thinking that what we’re really seeing in Adams’ photos is himself and his projections, not the subjects themselves, and not our prejudices about them.

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