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

Director: Jennifer Baichwal

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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 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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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?

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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? l

Visit Shelby Lee Adams’ home page here.

  • bill r. spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 9:49 am

    Okay…I feel like I have a lot to say about this, but I should probably try to not say it all at once.
    First of all, the way I see it, I have to first judge Adams and his motives based on how these photos appear to me, and very few of these left me with any sort of negative or uneasy impression about their subjects (I admit the snake handling ones get a little Diane Arbus-y, and a little more about her in a minute). I think the idea that Adams disgraced her family because of the photo of her sister in the doorway is positively surreal (and I don’t get “leering” from the man’s face at all).
    In my opinion, the “sophisticates”, as you call them, who object to Adams’s work are really battling their own prejudices (and not very well, in some cases), while those with a closer connection to the region and the people are being alarmist due to those very prejudices from the outside. If I see these photographs, and I see what Adams claims he was intending me to see before he’s told me that, it becomes very difficult for me to double back and intellectualize a new, more negative interpretation, no matter how many art critics tell me that what I’m seeing isn’t actually there.
    This next argument is a dicey one — so dicey that I’m not even going to use it as an argument — but Diane Arbus is generally beloved by art critics, though many of the same criticisms of Adams’s work could be directed towards her. I would simply like to know what some of the critics featured in this film who disapprove of Adams think of Arbus. They may have the exact same problems, but I’d still like to know.

  • Fox spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 9:52 am

    Hey Marilyn-
    First, I wanted to say how great a pick this was for a discussion. You lay out so many excellent points in your write-up that I’d like to hit on, but let me start slowly…
    While I don’t think Shelby Lee Adams’ has cruel intentions, I think his photographs don’t achieve the “respect” he says he wants to bring back to Kentucky. In fact, I think they do the opposite. Here are two major reasons why:
    1. He shoots in black & white film. This distorts the “reality” he claims he wants to portray. I think this is apparent when he see him shoot the two young girls in front of the chairs. The contrast bewteen Baichwal’s color footage of the girls being photographed, and Adams’ actual black & white photograph is drastic. Just a fews seconds before the photo is taken, the two girls are smiley and bright and cheery. Adams’ photograph sucks that out. This photo could have been taken in 2008, 1998, 1988, or 1908. It’s total manipulation, and the furtherst thing from documentation photography.
    2. Adams’ chooses to shoot primarily at the heads of the hollers. These are the locations he says are the most remote and separated from modern society. He later defends himself against critics by saying, “I don’t show the worst”. But by choosing to focus on the heads of the hollers, he is showing the worst.

  • Rick Olson spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 9:54 am

    First of all, let me say that this is a fine beginning to TOERIFC. It touches many of the issues surrounding Adams and Baichwal’s depiction of them.
    I wondered if you were going to bring in that absolutely fascinating interview you did with Morris. It certainly provides a counterpoint to the Baichwal film.
    I was struck by your “1000 words” opening, a picture is worth a thousand words. In the context of the hog photograph, the critic interviewed about that picture — I believe it was the one from the Times — is talking about what we are told about the photo, how it is represented to us. If it is wordless, we might assume it to be more documentary than it really is … if we are told that it hadn’t been done since the 70s, it becomes an interesting artifact. If we are told the latter plus that Adams provided the hog, it becomes more sinister vis a vis Adams as a participant/manipulator.
    I was very interested in Baichwal’s objectivity or lack of it. Maybe it was what I read into it, but her cut-aways to the critics and the art museum after her introduction to Adams and his subjects, seemed to cast the critics in kind of an effete light. I wonder about if she’d started with the photos on the wall, then went to the subjects, what the implications would be?

  • Jonathan Lapper spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 9:55 am

    Unbelievably, a meeting has been scheduled for 11:00. I’ll be back in thirty. Superb write-up. Like Fox and Bill I have much to say. Insanely upset over meeting re-schedule. Aaarrrrggghhhh!!!

  • Rick Olson spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 10:00 am

    Bill, I get leering from that photo. What I didn’t get was the disgrace of the woman whose sister she is. There is a beautiful, serious look on that girl’s face.
    Fox, does that other Adams, Ansel, distort nature via black and white? Isn’t it more how he’s posed the little girl than that one is in color and the other in B&W?

  • Marilyn spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 10:03 am

    Thanks, guys, for kicking this off. One thing that should be noted is that Adams does shoot in color. That’s why I provided the link to his home page. Certainly, the B&W photos apply, and I do think he’s intentionally creating spooky tableaus in a number of instances. The weirdness draws interest to the photos in the way a standard portrait would not.
    I have to say that the “Christ” photo with Homer in a diaper – and Adams says himself that he sees Homer in this photo as Christ – is hardly documentary by his own admission. I reminded me to some extend of the beggar’s orgy in Viridiana, which I’m sure isn’t a reference point for most consumers of these photos, but certainly put an edge on it for me, particularly the intention of the man with the knife.

  • Rick Olson spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 10:05 am

    But by choosing to focus on the heads of the hollers, he is showing the worst.
    Fox, I think that what he meant by that is that he doesn’t show the worst of his subjects, i.e., the worst at the heads of the hollers.
    I’ve been up some of those hollers (I lived for a time in Appalachia) and believe me, there is worse than what we saw in Baichwal’s film.

  • bill r. spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 10:08 am

    But Rick, he’s not even looking at the girl, he’s looking at the camera. What’s he leering at? That’s the way the guy smiles.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 10:09 am

    Rick, Then why the emphasis on the heads of the hollers, which I understood meant the end of the trail, so to speak?

  • Marilyn spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 10:13 am

    Bill – I took it as a leer, obviously. This is the whole problem with these photos. All we get is a mise en scene that all of Adams’ talking about “classical composition” doesn’t explain. If you want to get very interpretive, could the screen represent a burst hymen? I mean, these are the kinds of things that can pour through someone’s mind while viewing these photo. Great art does lead to multiple interpretations. The controversy surrounds his use of subjects who may not know what the photos could imply about them.

  • Rick Olson spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 10:14 am

    Bill, I think you’re right … that’s just the way he smiles. Marilyn made that point … it takes some time to get the way they smile/look.
    Marylin, I think this choice of the heads of the hollers represents manipulation for his purposes, all right, I think he chose them because the are the most different, the most “other.” I just think he’s right when he says he doesn’t shoot the worst.

  • bill r. spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 10:16 am

    Practically any art can be interpreted however the viewer/reader/whatever would like to interpret it. That doesn’t mean it was ever intended to be there. Is it any reflection on Adams and his subjects if that man’s natural grin is seen as a leer? When the waters get this deep, why does the interpreter look back at themselves? Why is Adams the only one who may not realize how their using these people, or their images?

  • Marilyn spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 10:17 am

    Can you explain that, Rick? Is being at the head of the holler implicit of being the most removed from society, or just an implication that he’s trying to make that he is going to “darkest Africa”?

  • bill r. spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 10:18 am

    Sorry, did that last comment might sound combative or insulting?

  • bill r. spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 10:20 am

    Also, the comment should have read:
    “When the waters get this deep, why does the interpreter NEVER look back at themselves?”

  • Rick Olson spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 10:22 am

    I think both, Marilyn … I think for a variety of reasons, those folks at the heads are the most removed from society, bothy historically and of their own choosing. Mountain people tend to be those who for whatever reason want to be isolated. And if you want to be isolated, the heads of the hollers is the most remote place. And historically, these are family holdings, many folks end up there because of farming concerns … as things got “built up,” to find more arable land (and to satisfy their jones to be isolated), you had to move further out.
    I think he is trying to make the implication that they are the most “different,” to play it up, for economic reasons as well.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 10:23 am

    Bill – Let’s assume no insulting ocmments will appear here. We all want a lively discussion.
    As for looking back at oneself, that is exactly what art is supposed to do. It is supposed to bore into our psyches and unlock the doors of perception. We do find ugly things in there, which is the point the art critics are making. It’s a matter of determining if the subjects are being exploited because they don’t know they are being held up as the dark, evil force that lives in us all.

  • Rick Olson spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 10:25 am

    Bill, it didn’t seem combative to me … just as art comes from the inner workings of the artist — Adams’ father had a disdain for his subject, and that screams to a counselor-type “father issues” — just as art comes from those places in the artist, so it makes us look back in on ourselves.

  • bill r. spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 10:34 am

    Okay, but I guess my point was, if only SOME of the people viewing the picture of the man and the girl see a leer on the man’s face, and even those people acknowledge that this “leer” is in fact simply his natural smile, why does this suddenly become an issue for Adams and his subjects? Why isn’t more of an issue for the viewer? With all these qualifiers in place — knowing Adams intention isn’t to present the man this way, not everyone sees it like that, etc. — I feel like Adams have effectively been removed from the discussion. The question becomes, Why do some see a leer, and others don’t?

  • Marilyn spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 10:37 am

    I don’t think Adams can be a reliable witness as to his intentions. He says the “Christ” photo is just that, but then says Homer’s father wanted to show off his new knife. Is it possible that Adams told him to show off the knife to create the scene he wanted to show? Damn right! This is manipulation. Is is ok if the subjects don’t think they’re being manipulated? That’s the hard question.

  • Rick Olson spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 10:40 am

    And the deeper question there, Marilyn, is if they know and approve, does it make any difference to his art, taken objectively?

  • Marilyn spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 10:45 am

    Yes, it does. Hospitals have you sign a consent form acknowledging the risks of an operation. Where’s that same disclaimer for the holler residents? I am reminded of how upset the famous woman in Walker Evans’ photo from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the one with the two children and the worried look. She very much objected to the slant of the photo, even though Walker and James Agee had the best of intentions. I’m not so sure Adams comes close to trying to reveal the real holler dwellers.

  • Fox spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 10:47 am

    Fox, does that other Adams, Ansel, distort nature via black and white? Isn’t it more how he’s posed the little girl than that one is in color and the other in B&W?
    Rick-
    I can’t answer that specifically about Ansel Adams b/c I’ve never looked at his work. I’m admittedly pretty ignorant when it comes to photography.
    But, to me, as one of the critics points out, as soon as Adams starts using his own light, his own set-ups etc., he is no longer photographing reality. He is no longer a documenting photographer. Whether I like the photos or not, I agree that he is making his own version of art,… but it’s not reality.
    I think Adams’ seems torn between being an theatrical photographer and a documenting photographer. You can’t be both.
    But more to the B&W. It lies about the time. I think if he is SO concerned with honesty, then he shoot shoot in color. I understand there is an aesthetic beauty to using B&W film, I’m not disputing that, but it still manipulates his subjects.

  • Ed Howard spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 10:50 am

    A fascinating film, Marilyn, and a great first choice for the film club. There’s so much to say about this film, and I covered some of it in my own review, but there’s one point I want to make here to see if anyone else picked up on it. Was anybody else bothered or intrigued by the way that Adams seemed to — consciously or unconsciously — alter his accent and manner of speaking depending on whether he was with the Appalachian folks or being interviewed directly by Baichwal? It was as though he had two distinct personalities, his folksy Appalachian one and his art-world one. While I generally admired the relative objectivity of Baichwal’s documentary, I wish that she had some comment on this, or done something to call it into question in some way. As it is, I noticed it, but I’m not sure the film itself does anything to call attention to it.

  • Rick Olson spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 10:52 am

    I’m not so sure Adams comes close to trying to reveal the real holler dwellers.
    On that, I think, we might agree. If he doesn’t, however, what does that mean? I don’t know these people, the most isolated ones, at least, though I’ve turned around hastily in some of their front yards … can we know that he doesn’t intend to reveal them, that he’s blowing smoke when he says he’s all altruistic and everything? Probably not.
    I suspect that as usual, motives are mixed. He undoubtedly believes himself when he says they’re pure, though. But motives are a slippery thing, they almost always are not pure.
    I’d rather talk about how connected his intentions — whatever they are — are with the end product. How important is it to know that he was/was not manipulative to enjoyment/lack of enjoyment of the end product?

  • Fox spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 10:57 am

    Fox, I think that what he meant by that is that he doesn’t show the worst of his subjects, i.e., the worst at the heads of the hollers.
    I’ve been up some of those hollers (I lived for a time in Appalachia) and believe me, there is worse than what we saw in Baichwal’s film.

    Rick-
    That’s true, but it’s evading the real question which is why didn’t Adams photograph the more “middle class” families of the hollers?
    He said he stopped shooting that one family after the death of the mother, and I respect his respect for them, and I believe him when he didn’t show the worst of what happened to that specific family, but he is still choosing to show the lower, more run down parts of the holler.
    He admits he has an attraction to people who are in pain, people who struggle, and that’s totally fine, but he shouldn’t act like he’s giving a rounded portrait of Appalachia if that’s what he chooses to photograph. I mean, he calls his show “Appalachia Today”. Is it? Or is it just the parts of Appalachia that Adams’ chooses to photograph.

  • bill r. spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 10:57 am

    But wait…
    Is it possible that Adams told him to show off the knife to create the scene he wanted to show? Damn right! This is manipulation.
    You can be suspicious of Adams, but you can’t just assume he manipulated the scene.
    And again, my main point is this: Marilyn, you threw out the extreme “hymen” example for the other picture. Yes, if you try really hard, you can, if you want, interpret the picture that way. But I need someone to explain to me why your extreme interpretation is Adams’s fault.

  • Jonathan Lapper spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 11:00 am

    I’m back and irked beyond belief that I have missed so much. So for starters, let me thank Marilyn again for this wonderful choice and start off with an “opening statement” so to speak.
    Watching the video footage contrasted with the photographs in this doc was an eye-opener. It is clear that Adams is creating an image he has of the dwellers in Appalachia and as one curator/critic said, if it’s his poetic interpretation I have no problem with it, if he’s saying this is how it really is, I do.
    One difference I noticed was technology. Cars, refrigerators, televisions – you can see them in the video. Hell, I even noticed this – In the video footage a couple of them are smoking store bought filtered cigarettes, in the photo of someone with a cigarette, it’s self-rolled. To me, this along with the black and white, and harsh lighting says that Adams wants to portray them as antiquated, primitive. And I think the photos are beautiful.
    I don’t think Adams is intentionally making them seem primitive, I think it is in his mind, a romanticizing of them.
    And I believe I am with Bill on the girl/screendoor photograph. I think it’s one of the most “normal” unromanticized photos of the lot. I don’t know what the older sister was complaining about.

  • Rick Olson spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 11:02 am

    Fox, as I said to Marilyn above, I believe that’s where (some of) the manipulation lies, in his choice of the hollers’ heads.

  • Rick Olson spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 11:03 am

    Well, everybody, now that Jonathan’s here, I have to go do some stuff. Be back later, it’s fascinating.

  • Jonathan Lapper spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 11:06 am

    Great, I show up and everybody leaves.

  • bill r. spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 11:12 am

    I’m still here, Jonathan. I’d like to hear your thoughts on my main point, that those who interpret these photos to see something negative might be more at “fault” (very much for lack of a better word) than Adams?

  • Marilyn spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 11:12 am

    I believe that we can’t hold artists responsible for the places their work takes its viewers. That’s why I strongly object to censorship, eg, the Robert Mapplethorpe banning in Cincinnati. If you don’t want to consume these pictures, don’t go to see them or buy the picture books.
    The difference here is that I don’t think that art photographers have the right to use human subjects without their awareness. That’s why they get model releases. What I wish Baichwal had done was to ask the subjects about the specific objections raised about the photos. We don’t know if they are fully aware of the implications of these photos. If they wouldn’t want someone to think that Homer is Christ and his father a Roman soldier, they wouldn’t let him use the photo. We really don’t know what they know about these photos.

  • Fox spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 11:13 am

    “The controversy surrounds his use of subjects who may not know what the photos could imply about them.”
    I’m already behind on this discussion (damn work…) but I’m trying to keep up! :)
    Anyways, about what Marilyn said in the above quote.
    I think the art critic whos says the people in the hollers lack the education to understand what Adams is doing is absolutely right. I mean, let’s not kid ourselves. These aren’t educated people (in the traditional educational system sense). As Adams himself says, “they’re living life like it was 100 years ago”. I think the fact that 12 of 16 of the family members have perished in a short period of time show that they are living in a somewhat primitive state.
    So… this means that the subjects are also separated from the way these photographs are perceived. The woman who says “I don’t think their mean”, is being honest, but would she feel that way if she was a fly on the wall in a NYC art gallery?? Adams’ is presenting his work to the larger outside world while indirectly cordoning off his subjects. There is a large disconnect their that I think he benefits from.

  • Jonathan Lapper spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 11:21 am

    Bill, I tend to believe the objections of the critics do reflect more about themselves while at the same time I believe Adams has responsibility for how he portrays his subjects as well.
    In the Homer/Christ photo Adams says, as noted above, that Homer’s father just wanted to show his knife. Well, a photographer, as can be seen in the movie, doesn’t just let his subjects do whatever they want. Adams could have simply said, “Uh, no, I don’t think that works here” but he didn’t. He knew the image that would create, unless he’s monumentally dense, and he let it happen.
    At the same time, people often read things into art based on their own prejudices. For instance, to use a rather base example, back when The Phantom Menace came out, there was a huge hullaballoo over Jar-Jar as a racist character. While I couldn’t stand the character myself, my first thoughts were, as to the pc critics, “So, when you see a reptilian lazy, slow character, you automatically think ‘Black person?’ Um… doesn’t that mean you’re the one with racial issues?”
    I get a lot of the same here. If someone is looking at a photo of Berthie and thinking Lil Abner that’s their problem not Adams. Hell, I know Lil Abner well having grown up with it in the comics page and I didn’t even think of that until it was mentioned in the doc.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 11:25 am

    Obviously, people bring their own warped perceptions to what they see (Tinky Wink from the Teletubbies is gay?). I think that is not really the case with these photos.

  • Fox spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 11:29 am

    He knew the image that would create, unless he’s monumentally dense, and he let it happen.
    Absolutely. I mean, Adams admits his manipulation with this photo. He even says he saw the religious imagery and subtext that this moment could create and he pounced on it. At that moment he is not photographing reality. (not to mention the lighting he used, the camera he used, and, again, the black & white film.)

  • Jonathan Lapper spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 11:33 am

    Obviously, people bring their own warped perceptions to what they see (Tinky Wink from the Teletubbies is gay?). I think that is not really the case with these photos.
    I don’t think it applies across the boards though. With the Homer/Christ photo I lay the blame on Adams for letting Daddy hold out the knife. We see him throughout saying, “take off your hat”, “move in closer,” “hold up the dog,” so clearly, like the director of a movie, he is in control of what he shoots but suddenly with the Homer/Christ photo it’s “Well hey it ain’t my fault. He wanted to hold the knife out and tweren’t a thing I could do about it.” So in that case I would say it’s Adams’ fault.
    With the girl/screendoor photo I don’t blame Adams. If you see a leer, which you clearly do, then to me, that’s you and what you’re seeing. I don’t see a leer. I see a guy looking at the camera. If he’s focused on the girl or studying her buttocks, then okay but he’s not. So in that case I believe you’re the one bringing the leer to the table, not the photographer or the subjects.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 11:36 am

    Ed – I mentioned the change in demeanor of Adams as well. He lives in Massachusetts now and certainly has adapted to life outside the holler (if he ever really knew it). I can almost see him slipping into an accent – the hubby does when he’s in Georgia, it just comes back – but his contradictions and obfuscations make this transformation suspect. He’s a cagey guy and may be drawing controversy to himself with his literal explanations for why he shot a picture the way he did (showing off the knife) and his slippery biography.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 11:39 am

    You may be right, Jonathan, but that’s the point, too. People bring impressions to these photos, and they’re not as silly as Tinky Wink. Someone said near the beginning of the film that people blame the poor for their own poverty. Is Adams furthering the cause of economic parity for these people? Does he care about that, or is he only interested in his art?

  • bill r. spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 11:53 am

    I think that is not really the case with these photos.
    Oh, I think it is, as often as not.
    As for as the Homer/Christ photo — and I may be wrong about this — I don’t remember having a chance to take that picture in on my own, before Christ was brought into it. Am I wrong? If not, how would we see the picture then? Or with any of these pictures? What if we all saw them cold, completely removed from the controversy, which is part of the film from the beginning?
    Finally, does Adams ever say that his goal is to be a documentary photographer?

  • filmdr spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 11:54 am

    Thanks for Marilyn for a very interesting choice for the first film for TOERIFC.
    I enjoyed the film, but I was surprised that Baichwal never directly asked Adams about his penchant for photographing the grotesque. I liked the footage of the art gallery observers looking at his photographs. In a sense, they are the true grotesques, as are all of us watching the film and judging.
    Did anyone notice the last few shots of the film that show a photograph of a walking bridge that has been partially destroyed, and then another shot of Adams walking across a similar bridge? I wondered if that suggested that Baichwal in the end approved of Adams’ work in bridging the culture between his subject and his audience.
    Also, the film reminded me of the debate around Crumb. In both cases, the controversy around the artist seems inextricable from the art itself.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 12:00 pm

    I could be wrong, but I thought he titled that photo using the word Christ. I’d have to see the book to be sure, though.
    As for whether he’s a documentary photographer, not exactly, if you read his statement above. But is he really letting the Appalachian people communicate? It seems he focuses most on his desires for the way the photos should be read.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 12:02 pm

    Filmdr – Thanks. I think she did ask him, but we don’t have her voice in the film. His explanations about each photo must have been in response to her probing.

  • Jonathan Lapper spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 12:03 pm

    One thing I haven’t really done yet is clarify for myself where I stand on Adams. Maybe it’s because I still find myself going back and forth on it. If I had to boil it down, I’d say that Adams, like almost any photographer, is manipulating his images and definitely trying to have it both ways. When challenged he offers up the same “classic triangulation” argument again and again. By the third or fourth time I thought, “Are you really listening to the criticisms here or not?” Classic triangulation does not answer any questions as to what the subjects are holding or looking like, only where they are placed in the photograph. He seems to think that placement is the only criticism of his work. I’m not sure yet if it is because he honestly thinks that’s the problem or if he is purposely evading the issue.
    I definitely don’t think he is furthering their cause because his photos do not represent hardship but an antiquated romanticized view of the subjects. Someone viewing the photos doesn’t think, “We need to help these people” but “Wow, they sure are different than us.” That’s what his photos concentrate on, the contrast in lifestyles. For all his talk of loving them, I don’t honestly get the feeling he cares much.

  • Jonathan Lapper spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 12:06 pm

    Finally, does Adams ever say that his goal is to be a documentary photographer?
    I think he does by the title of his show and book, Appalachia Today. That title says, “Documentary” not artistic interpretation.
    I think a lot of the debate here comes from the fact that Adams is perhaps more confused than any of us as to what he’s doing, aside from Classic Triangulation. He’s got that down pat.

  • Jonathan Lapper spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 12:09 pm

    Wait a minute, I think I’m wrong there. That’s the title of the art show isn’t it, not his book?

  • Fox spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 12:10 pm

    Finally, does Adams ever say that his goal is to be a documentary photographer?
    Bill-
    I could be wrong, but I thought in one of the face-to-face moments he refers to himself (and a group of photographers) as “those of us who document through photography…”. I also believe he uses that word in other instances, but I can’t be sure.
    And I think he makes it pretty clear when he says he wants to “restore the image” of his people that was distorted from the ABC news footage, that he has the intentions of a documentarian.

  • Fox spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 12:12 pm

    “…aside from Classic Triangulation. He’s got that down pat.”
    HAHAHA… that was some nice comic relief!!

  • bill r. spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 12:12 pm

    No, that’s the book’s title. But if Marilyn’s right, and he titled the Homer/knife photograph “Christ”, then clearly he sees poetry as an aim, too.
    Had anyone here encountered Adams’ work prior to seeing this film?

  • Fox spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 12:20 pm

    Had anyone here encountered Adams’ work prior to seeing this film?
    I hadn’t even heard of him before Marilyn picked the film.

  • Daniel spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 12:20 pm

    Good grief, now THIS is how you have a discussion! Congrats on the kick-off. I know I haven’t officially joined TOERIFC, but I only have time to say that this was a very thought-provoking review, Marilyn, similar to your write-up on StandOpProced. Great choice.

  • Jonathan Lapper spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 12:22 pm

    Had anyone here encountered Adams’ work prior to seeing this film?
    I hadn’t heard of him until Marilyn’s pick. And I agree with this “then clearly he sees poetry as an aim, too” which is why I think he’s trying to have it both ways. If fact, if he wasn’t trying to have it both ways, and just state that he is taking artistic impressions, then I don’t think the documentary would have been made. The very fact that he’s going back and forth between artistic expression and the dumb routine, “I don’t know what the fuss is all about? Look here, this photo uses classic tri…” Zzzzzzzz. That’s the whole reason there is controversy and why we’re debating it right now.

  • bill r. spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 12:27 pm

    Okay. I just wonder what our reactions to his work would have been if we’d seen it pure, removed from the controversy. As it is, that’s the only context we’re given (not the fault of the film, by the way, which I thought was very good, and refreshingly even-handed).

  • Fox spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 12:35 pm

    Okay. I just wonder what our reactions to his work would have been if we’d seen it pure, removed from the controversy.
    Bill-
    If someone just plopped the book in front of me, I would have thought he was exploiting them. But as you mentioned earlier, you saw the photos differently, and I think that’s very fascinating.
    I think you’re right that gut reactions can tell us something about ourselves, as well as what we’ve been fed and conditioned by other forms of media and culture.

  • Pat spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 12:35 pm

    Just wanted to pop in and thank Marilyn for a great write-up and I’ll be back. I’m swamped at work today, after having been off for 2 days last week with the back injury, so I have limited time to comment and discuss till after 5 CST. But I will be back!

  • Jonathan Lapper spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 12:39 pm

    I thought it was very good too. Many of my cold war/nuclear bomb debate movies are put out by Docurama. They release docs that don’t normally get released like the big ones with big names behind them (Fog of War, Bowling for Columbine, etc).
    Even though I wasn’t afforded an opportunity to have a cold reaction to the work, I still think we can discern enough of the difference between the artistic and purely documentarian to make a sound judgment. And so I believe that had I saw these photos at an art show, with no background of the photographer, no interviews of the subjects and so on, I would have seen them as poetic, artistic impressions of these people. Had I then met Adams and heard him say “I’m just showing them as they are” I would’ve been taken aback and probably responded, “No, you’re not. Have you even looked at these since you developed them.”
    Still, his artistic impressions don’t cause as much of a problem with me as they do with some of his critics. The hog-kill photo for instance. Maybe I’m the one being daft now but I really don’t care if they didn’t actually slaughter pigs in that family and he had to buy it for them. It’s an intriguing picture. But that one curator/critic was acting as if he had committed a crime or something by doing that.

  • Jonathan Lapper spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 12:40 pm

    Should be “had I seen”. Yikes.

  • bill r. spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 12:43 pm

    My own strong reaction to the movie and the comments thus far may have a lot to do with the guy who, when you boil it all down, was essentially saying that the people being photographed aren’t educated enough to see the pictures the same way he sees them.
    And no, these people aren’t very well educated, but they don’t have to be to have a reactino to a photograph. There was one woman towards the end who I thought was very savvy and articulate — the one who actually used the phrase “the true meaning of pictures” — and I wish I could remember more of what she said.

  • bill r. spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 12:49 pm

    Also…
    That’s the whole reason there is controversy and why we’re debating it right now.
    Well, yeah, but included in the debate is our reactions to the photographs, and which side of the controversy we find ourselves. I think it’s a real possibility that if we’d simply seen the work cold and had a chance to form our own, unfiltered opinions of them, our view of the controversy might be different.

  • Fox spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 12:56 pm

    “…with the guy who, when you boil it all down, was essentially saying that the people being photographed aren’t educated enough to see the pictures the same way he sees them.
    And no, these people aren’t very well educated, but they don’t have to be to have a reactino to a photograph.”

    As I said earlier, I think that man is absolutely correct. He isn’t saying they can’t have a reaction, he’s saying that b/c they are removed from the art world, and removed from popular culture, and are unfamiliar with the aeshtetics of art photography, that they aren’t going to have as sophisticated a understanding of the photo being taken as Adams does when he takes it. I think he thinks Adams’ has an advantage on these people b/c of that, and I agree. Even though they are his friends, I think there is a major disconnect between Adams and his subjects.

  • Flickhead spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 1:01 pm

    An excellent post and introduction to the new film club, Marilyn. I’m glad you didn’t stick with your original choice of Guys and Dolls — my reaction to that film is similar to other peoples reaction to The Sound of Music.
    I was surprised by your present selection, and very pleased to see it. As I write this, there are sixty (60!!) comments to your post already. I know in the spirit of this club I should be reading each and every one, but… well, that’s a lot of comments.
    Someone above mentioned that they weren’t as jarred as you by Adams’s portrait of Louise Hall’s sister under the watchful, leering eye of the man in the background. I, too, failed to register the sexual connotations and potential child molestation here. Which tells us that the beauty or ugliness of the image is in the eye and mind of the beholder.
    You observe that there are no smiling faces in Adams’s photos. Coming from both a New York suburb and San Francisco, I now live in a rural Pennsylvania farming community. Within walking distance from my house and our tony golf course retirement community, up in the wooded terrain of South Mountain, are communities similar to those in the film. The people there don’t smile. Life is hard, many of them live off the land. But they certainly have the edge on me and my well-heeled neighbors: if China or Russia ever start dropping bombs, these mountain folk will be in the woods hunting for dinner, while I’ll be running around like an idiot crying that my internet service has been disconnected.
    The first thing I took from the film was: are critics necessary? Appearing as if she just slithered away from a bridge foursome at the Four Seasons, Vicki Goldberg, pontificating in her suffocating Bryn Mawr drawl, looked and sounded ridiculous. She based certain assumptions on a culture she probably learned or heard about in a university course. Her opinions and observatons just didn’t seem valid.

  • bill r. spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 1:04 pm

    But I didn’t see the photographs the same way that critic did, so to me he’s tying himself in knots to find something negative in the photos, and then claiming that those who see it differently are unsophisticated. It’s win/win for that guy.

  • Jonathan Lapper spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 1:04 pm

    Bill, that guy does sound smug to be sure, but what Fox says has some merit. Someone can be very well educated, Ivy League let’s say. But they don’t squat about football. So we’re watching the game with him and he asks, “Now what’s that guy do?” pointing to the quarterback.
    “Oh well,” I say, “he warms the ball for the guy behind him”
    “Yeah, yeah,” you say, “Only sometimes the guy behind him doesn’t want it and so the ball warmer throws it to someone instead.”
    “Why’s he keep standing up and yelling out things at the line,” he asks, referring to the QB calling an audible.
    “Well,” you say, “it’s a part of his job to yell insults at the defense to rile them up.”
    “Yeah,” I say, “You know, throw them off their game.”
    Now, you and I are ridiculing this guy, making fun of him, and he doesn’t even know it. And he’s very well educated. BUT… He’s not sophisticated in his knowledge of football, just as these folks are not sophisticated in their knowledge of photography. I think that’s what the guy in the movie and Fox are both saying.

  • bill r. spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 1:06 pm

    My previous comment was directed at Fox.
    And Flickhead, I agree with everything you just said.

  • bill r. spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 1:09 pm

    Jonathan, I see all that, but, again, it’s a little difficult for me to have sympathy for the critic’s point of view about who’s sophisticated and who isn’t when I fundamentally disagree with his reading of the photos.

  • Jonathan Lapper spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 1:09 pm

    Appearing as if she just slithered away from a bridge foursome at the Four Seasons, Vicki Goldberg, pontificating in her suffocating Bryn Mawr drawl, looked and sounded ridiculous. She based certain assumptions on a culture she probably learned or heard about in a university course. Her opinions and observatons just didn’t seem valid.
    She’s the one that treated the hog photo as if a crime had been committed right? Like we should put Adams on trial for that heinous deception.

  • Jonathan Lapper spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 1:12 pm

    Bill, I do know what you mean. So far, if I may be so bold, I think we all agree there is artistic expression going on with the work. I think we also agree Adams tries to say it’s one or the other at different times.
    But it seems you, me and Flickhead don’t have as much of a problem with the final result as Marilyn, Fox and Rick(?) do. I don’t know about Rick because he had to bow out early.
    The three of us don’t see leering for instance. Also you and I don’t understand the complaints of the older sister speaking of the screendoor photo.
    So if we’re all generally seeing the same thing (so to speak) why are our reactions to the end result different?

  • bill r. spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 1:16 pm

    I don’t know…what, to you, is the “end result”? Adams’s treatment of/attitude towards his subjects?

  • bill r. spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 1:17 pm

    Or I guess I should have just asked what you mean by “end result”?

  • Fox spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 1:18 pm

    so to me he’s tying himself in knots to find something negative in the photos, and then claiming that those who see it differently are unsophisticated.
    I don’t think he’s twisting himself in knots at all, I just think he’s being honest.
    And these people are unsophisticated when it comes to art photography. I myself am unsophisticated when it comes to appreciating photography. It’s not an insult, it’s the truth.
    This doesn’t mean I, or the Appalachian people, can’t/won’t have reactions to these photos, it just means they see them through different eyes than Adams does when he’s photographing them. And I think that is a betrayal of Adams to his friends.
    Like when he goes to the house funeral, Adams says “I took some photos of the funeral for them, and then I took MY picture.” There are two different things going on here, and I’m not so sure that Adams is honest with his subjects about it.

  • Jonathan Lapper spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 1:31 pm

    Bill, by end result I simply mean the photographs themselves. In other words, and after all this I think I’m trying to distill the debate down in my head to get a handle on it, while we all see artistic expression going on I don’t see it necessarily as exploiting his subjects. If we argue that he is confused with whether he is a documentarian or an artist then that’s one thing but I don’t see either way how that necessarily translates into exploitation.
    I question his own honesty at times, yes, but I don’t see how these people are being made to suffer through exploitation due to his photography. Like I said at the beginning of my comments, he romanticizes them in a primitive/antiquated light, but I don’t think that’s harmful to them.
    Is it exploitation because he makes money from his photographs? Does that mean every photographer must start paying people they photograph (in non-studio model photography settings I mean)or they’re an exploitation artist?

  • bill r. spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 1:32 pm

    Fox, this particular argument will just go around in circles, because we completely disagree about what the photographs depict. I know these people are unsophisticated. You admit you are, as well. I would guess my level of unsophistication regarding photography is about level with yours. Yet we see these pictures differently.
    So. What does that mean about the concept of “sophistication”, at least in context of this discussion? Nothing very good, it seems to me, if you and I can be similarly illiterate of the art form and come away from Adams work with such different views. So then it comes back to why you are reading the pictures one way, and I’m reading them another way. Which, as I’ve said before, turns the focus on us, and away from Adams, because he clearly has less power over the viewer than these critics (and possibly he) thinks he does.

  • bill r. spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 1:36 pm

    Quick addition to my response to Fox: Or maybe our differences, and everything else I just talked about, stems from our first encountering the work in the context of the controversy.
    And Jonathan, maybe our views of the end result aren’t really that different. If I had to choose from your readings of Adams himself, I would probably go with “confused”, although I don’t know nearly enough about the guy or his work to really say. He does seem to be coming from two different directions — poetry and documenation — but, like you, even if he’s being evasive I don’t see exploitation in that.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 1:44 pm

    Back from lunch, and glad to see a few people have joined the discussion.
    When I first saw this film, I felt very strongly that Adams was an exploiter. The further I got from the film, the more complicated my reaction became. I have thought about this film for years and still am not sure where I stand.
    I think about this kind of thing a lot when I’m viewed films. Should I care whether I like a character or only that the filmmaker presented the character accurately? As film enthusiasts, we consume genre pictures while understanding that we are looking at types.
    To me, many of these photos traffic in types as well. I admit to the great skill Adams brings to the task, but we are still seeing these people through his eyes. I loved the coal miners – proud, strong-looking men, the workers of this community. I liked the home funerals a lot because our society distances us from death to the point where we’ve made our communities neurotic in avoidance of aging and dying. My perceptions seem most in accord with Adams in these frames.
    Others cast these people in roles, roles that both Adams and I seem to have some ambivalence about. I’d like to direct you to the photos of Cindy Sherman for comparisons. The drama inherent in her set-ups match up pretty well with a number of Adams photos.
    Yes, we bring our own perceptions to photos we see. But remember Errol Morris’ comments. We think we know what we’re seeing, but we don’t. And a huge part of that is what the artist directs us to see.

  • bill r. spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 1:52 pm

    Marilyn, what do you think Adams is directing us to see? That’s where I’m still confused. Not to hammer on the one photograph, but in the photograph of the man and the girl, you see a leer, even though I believe you also admit that the man isn’t intending to leer. I don’t see a leer. So, in that one, what is Adams manipulating me to see?

  • filmdr spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 1:59 pm

    “We think we know what we’re seeing, but we don’t. And a huge part of that is what the artist directs us to see.”
    True, but I wonder if anyone would be debating Adams’ work if he had photographed everyone in a way that all of the critics would approve of.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 1:59 pm

    Bill – If you don’t see a leer, then you don’t see a leer. The photo is then just a portrait. I think the inclusion of the man in that photo was a deliberate juxtaposition. Look at Adams’ portrait work, such as his people and animals series or the people and musical instruments. These are like Picasso’s man with a guitar, rather straightforward figural representations. The screen door photo really steps away from this formal portraiture into his more narrative style.
    I do believe he liked the textures of the screen door – what photographer could resist it, he says, and I agree. But what about the overall composition? There is a story here, a feeling when looking at a beautiful, young girl and a man standing in the rear. It could mean a number of things, perhaps even what kind of a man this girl will marry if she stays in the holler. Lechery. The girl’s beauty stands out of this squalor, of which the man is a part. That’s why I see a leer, or at least something disturbing to the classic beauty of this girl.

  • Fox spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 2:02 pm

    So then it comes back to why you are reading the pictures one way, and I’m reading them another way.
    I have no idea. I don’t know if something like that is knowable to a pinpoint.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 2:02 pm

    Filmdr – Baichwal interviews Adams’ peers, who find nothing wrong with what he is doing. I wonder sometimes, just as I wonder when I read film scholarship, whether the concern with the composition, the frame, the visual interest of a film to exclusion of the content isn’t just a cheat, a way to say “the medium is the message,” the desire to remove meaning, to abstract experience as a way to dissect the human experience.

  • bill r. spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 2:16 pm

    I do believe he liked the textures of the screen door – what photographer could resist it, he says, and I agree. But what about the overall composition? There is a story here, a feeling when looking at a beautiful, young girl and a man standing in the rear. It could mean a number of things, perhaps even what kind of a man this girl will marry if she stays in the holler. Lechery. The girl’s beauty stands out of this squalor, of which the man is a part. That’s why I see a leer, or at least something disturbing to the classic beauty of this girl.
    Then why didn’t Adams direct the man to look at the girl? Why have him look at the camera? And I gotta say, the guy looks friendly to me. If Adams is trying to manipulate me into seeing something negative in him, he’s doing a piss poor job of it.
    Another thing, about the Homer/Christ picture: If it is indeed titled “Christ”, was that title planned, or did it only occur to him after he developed his photograph? That’s and important detail.
    And I also remember the photograph being presented in the documentary like this: First, a close-up of Homer’s part of the photograph. Then the man with the knife, and a close-up of the knife. And THEN we get the whole picture. Now THAT’S a manipulative way of presenting that picture to someone who’s never seen it before.

  • Fox spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 2:21 pm

    Bill-
    Are you saying there is no manipulation happening at all?
    Because anytime Adams takes a photo outside of a natural event, anytime it is staged, he is manipulating. You may not feel the same way Marilyn does about the photo of the little girl and the man, but you’re still being manipulated when you think he’s a “friendly” man.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 2:21 pm

    The vast majority of Adams’ photos have his subjects looking into the lens. That would account for why the man was looking straight ahead. Again, as for interpretation, that’s another thing, and I won’t argue that you’re wrong, Bill. But this photo disturbed me. I’m not saying he shouldn’t make disturbing photos – that’s what art is for, to shake things up. Otherwise, it’s just decoration.
    As for Baichwal’s editing, my recollection is that she did it to match Adams’ narrative.

  • Jonathan Lapper spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 2:26 pm

    I still have the DVD at home and I’m going to watch that section again when I get home (the Christ/Homer photo) to see how it plays out.
    What if all of these photographs were staged the exact same way, but the subjects were urbane New Yorkers. The girl in the screendoor of her Brooklyn flat, with a hip Basquiat-type standing behind her? Would it still be disturbing?
    What if Los Angelinos were standing around a roasting pig at a barbeque?

  • Marilyn spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 2:32 pm

    Good questions, Jonathan. I guess it would depend on the print, the quality of the lighting. But let’s face it – these people are “other.” They are hidden away, and what we know of them we know by stereotyping and reputation. A photo is so much more difficult to engage with than a film. What if these photos were strung together in a narrative (a la La Jetee) and made to tell a story like Freaks? Or maybe Matewan? Two different interpretations, and our opinions would be shaped by the narrative.

  • filmdr spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 2:43 pm

    Freaks occurred to me too, as well as Elephant Man. By the end of the film, there’s a lot of emphasis on the two retarded offspring. I wondered when Adams closely befriended their family whether he considered them a goldmine of grotesque opportunities. And yet, I don’t get the sense that Baichwal really makes up her mind about Adams either way. Her unwillingness to judge conclusively, and the way the movie confronts the viewer with his or her preconceptions about the poor make The True Meaning of Pictures so compelling.

  • bill r. spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 2:48 pm

    Are you saying there is no manipulation happening at all?
    Not at all. My feelings about Adams is that, ultimately, he is more a poetic photographer than a documentary one, but my argument would be that his manipulation doesn’t do his subjects a disservice.
    …but you’re still being manipulated when you think he’s a “friendly” man.
    So which is it? Am I being manipulated to see lechery, or to see genuine friendliness? Adams can’t be going for both, can he?
    And why is it that, at least in the film, everyone who believes that Adams is negatively manipulating these people are those most knowledgeable of the art form? Because that sets up the counter-intuitive notion that those most susceptible to Adams’ manipulations are the people most sophisticated about the medium.
    And Marilyn, interpretation is everything. That’s at the heart of the whole controversy.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 2:55 pm

    Of course, Bill. That’s why it’s so hard to tease out the true meaning of pictures, because those of us who take snapshots think we know what we’re doing. We’re capturing a memory, making a record. That’s not always what Adams is doing, though sometimes he is, and sometimes with great poignancy and poetry.
    I want to find out if you all think he owes the holler dwellers some of his royalties.

  • Fox spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 2:56 pm

    And why is it that, at least in the film, everyone who believes that Adams is negatively manipulating these people are those most knowledgeable of the art form?
    That’s not true. The woman who said “I would rip out every photo in that book if I could” is the sister of the young girl in the doorway.
    Also, the town sheriff, or mayor, or whomever that is with the glasses who says “Appalachia will get you attention” and “poverty sells” doesn’t seem to happy about Adams’ work.

  • Flickhead spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 2:58 pm

    Are his royalties really that vast?

  • Fox spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 2:59 pm

    So which is it? Am I being manipulated to see lechery, or to see genuine friendliness? Adams can’t be going for both, can he?
    And to be clear, I haven’t expressed my feelings on that one photo, whether I see it negatively or positively. I’m just using it as an example for our discussion of manipulation.

  • bill r. spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 3:02 pm

    Fox – Okay, not everybody. But you see my point, right? That one critic, the “sophistication” guy, says that the subjects don’t see what’s really going on because they’re unsophisticated. Shouldn’t Adams’s manipulation work best on those who are unsophisticated?

  • Fox spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 3:03 pm

    I want to find out if you all think he owes the holler dwellers some of his royalties.
    I don’t know how that generally works with photography, but my quick reaction would tell me yes.
    But I wonder too, as Flickhead asked, how vast his royalties are. Moreover, how successful is Shelby Lee Adams and does he still live in Kentucky?

  • bill r. spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 3:06 pm

    And to be clear, I haven’t expressed my feelings on that one photo, whether I see it negatively or positively. I’m just using it as an example for our discussion of manipulation.
    Fine, but on one hand I’m being told that the photo is being set up to tell a dark, lecherous narrative, and on the other hand I’m being told that my viewing of the man as friendly has been equally manipulated. You can see why my head is spinning.

  • bill r. spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 3:10 pm

    Regarding the royalties, I would guess, if he’s as friendly with these families as he says, that yes, he probably does help them out financially, when he can. But I also obviously have no way of knowing if that’s true.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 3:15 pm

    Adams is quite successful and lives in Massachusetts, not the cheapest state in the union. Here’s a partial list of places that have Adams’ work in their permanent collection:
    Work in Selected Permanent Collections
    2007 The University of Louisville, Photographic Archives, Louisville, KY
    2006 High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA
    2004 The William J. Clinton Presidential Library, Little Rock, ARK
    2003 The Gallery At Windsor, Vero Beach, FA
    Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY
    Victoria and Albert Museum, London, England
    2002 Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, Cedar Rapids, IA
    2000 The College of Santa Fe, Marion Center for Photographic Arts, Santa Fe, NM
    Maison Europeenne de la Photographie, Paris, France
    The New York Public Library, New York City, NY
    The Victor Barsokevitsch Photography Center, Kupoio, Finland
    1999 & 04 The Snite Museum of Art, University of Notre Dame, IN
    Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, Kalamazoo, MI
    1998 Musee De L’Elysee Lausanne, Lausanne, Switzerland
    Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, TX
    Ohio Wesleyan University, Delaware, OH
    1997 University Art Gallery, New Mexico State University, Las Couces, NM
    1996 Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, Netherlands
    The National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, CA
    Lamar Dodd Art Center, LaGrange College, LaGrange, GA
    1995 The Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, TX
    Columbus Museum of Art, Columbus, OH
    The Museum of Contemporary Photography, Columbia College, Chicago, IL
    1994 Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL
    1993 Photography Collection III – The Steinman Gift, Boca Raton Museum of Art, Boca Raton, FL
    The Graham Nash Collection, Manhattan Beach, CA
    Middle Tennessee State University, Murfreesboro, TN
    The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, MI
    1992 & 95 International Center of Photography, NYC, NY
    1992 Danforth Museum of Art, Framington, MA
    Time Life Collection, Rockefeller Center, NYC, NY
    Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA
    1991 & 99 The Carpenter Center of the Visual Arts, Harvard University,
    Cambridge, MA
    1991 San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, CA
    Center for Creative Photography, Tucson, AZ
    University of Wyoming Art Museum, Laramie, WY

  • Fox spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 3:16 pm

    Shouldn’t Adams’s manipulation work best on those who are unsophisticated?
    Bill-
    Well, I think we start getting into gradations here. You and I both admit we are “unsophisticated” when it comes to photography, but I think our eyes are a step up from those of the people who live at the heads of the hollers.
    Living in cities, being surrounded by pop culture, education, watching lots of movies etc., give us a different level of experience to look at Adams’ work.

  • bill r. spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 3:18 pm

    Fox – True. And we STILL see the pictures differently.

  • Jonathan Lapper spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 3:18 pm

    Bill, even though we agree on many things in this comment thread I have to point out that here – “Shouldn’t Adams’s manipulation work best on those who are unsophisticated?” – the answer is clearly “Yes.” As proved by the fact that the “sophisticated” aren’t fooled by it. The subjects say there is no problem, thus, they have been successfully fooled.
    I don’t think it’s exploitative to a fault and we agree there but just on the specifics of this one point I think you’re answering your own question. The fact that the critics are questioning it and the subjects are not points out that the critics have not been successfully manipulated.

  • bill r. spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 3:20 pm

    Fox – I just realized that our last exchange wasn’t really related to my point, which is: if Adams’s manipulation isn’t meant to work on the unsophisticated, who is meant to work on?

  • Marilyn spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 3:21 pm

    There are a number of photos of subjects standing next to a hugh satellite dish. I’d really like to know what their level of sophistication is regarding pop culture. They probably have access to every channel in the known universe.

  • bill r. spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 3:23 pm

    Jonathan – Okay, then who is the manipulation for? The only ones who even catch it are the ones who aren’t buying it. Where are the people who see these pictures and are horrified by these lecherous freaks?

  • Jonathan Lapper spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 3:25 pm

    Yes, Marilyn I saw that satellite dish photo. I didn’t bring up any of the photos from his page because it doesn’t concern the film but it does give one insight into what Jennifer Baichwal manipulated herself by including while leaving others out. The pics on his blog don’t seem nearly as “manipulated” as the ones shown in the movie. Did Jennifer Baichwal set up the whole thing? Was there any controversy before she got involved?

  • bill r. spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 3:25 pm

    There are a number of photos of subjects standing next to a hugh satellite dish. I’d really like to know what their level of sophistication is regarding pop culture. They probably have access to every channel in the known universe.
    Good point, Marilyn. My dad’s family is from a mountainous, coal-mining region of Pennsylvania, and when you’re entering the town, there’s a big sign that says “Home of Cable Television”. The reason being, with all the mountains around, that’s the only way they were going to get any TV at all. But cut off as the town seems to be, they do get all the channels.

  • Fox spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 3:26 pm

    Fine, but on one hand I’m being told that the photo is being set up to tell a dark, lecherous narrative, and on the other hand I’m being told that my viewing of the man as friendly has been equally manipulated. You can see why my head is spinning.
    Bill-
    Well, my point is that either way – “friendly” or “lecherous” – you are being manipulated. Would you agree with that?
    I think if Marilyn sees it to be set up as a “dark, lecherous narrative” then that’s her reading, and if you see him “friendly”, that’s yours. I don’t think those feelings can be debated… they’re your feelings. I just think, regardless, there is manipulation in that photo. Does anyone dispute that?
    I’m more curious now about what these photos say about Shelby Lee Adams himself. For instance, what does – if anything – his “Christ” photo and snake handling photos say about his feelings on religion?

  • bill r. spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 3:31 pm

    Fox, if your point is that all art manipulates, then sure, I agree. But the question here is much more specific than that, obviously, and when you get to the point where two people with completely opposite reactions to the same photograph are being told that both reactions are being manipulated, and the very word “manipulated” is being used as a stick to beat the photographer, then I think the whole thing starts to get a little ridiculous.

  • Fox spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 3:32 pm

    if Adams’s manipulation isn’t meant to work on the unsophisticated, who is meant to work on?
    I don’t really understand what that means. That implies that Adams acknowledges his level of manipulation (lighting, staging, film type, camera type…), and I don’t think he does. Thus, I don’t think it’s meant to work on anybody.

  • bill r. spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 3:34 pm

    Thus, I don’t think it’s meant to work on anybody.
    Then it’s not manipulation.

  • Jonathan Lapper spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 3:35 pm

    Okay, then who is the manipulation for?
    Everyone going to the museum exhibit, who else? The so-called sophisticates see through it, the subjects don’t see it at all and the manipulation if for the general public and the stereotypes they bring with them. But the documentary doesn’t give us their reaction.
    Fox, Adams’ feeling on religion could not be discerned by me simply by his photographing the snake handlers. Or naming the photo “Christ.” I didn’t get any real idea of where he stood except that judging by the sign behind him I assume he’s your basic, run-of-the-mill non-snake-handling Christian. I can’t remember if the sign in his office said “Jesus” or “God” but either way, I didn’t get much else.

  • bill r. spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 3:37 pm

    Sorry, that was too glib. My phrasing here…
    if Adams’s manipulation isn’t meant to work on the unsophisticated, who is meant to work on?
    …was meant as a Devil’s Advocate kind of thing. What I meant was, if you think Adams is manipulating his images in a way that negatively reflects on his subjects, where is the evidence for that? Shouldn’t the people with the least knowledge of photography be the people Adams is trying to manipulate?

  • bill r. spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 3:39 pm

    But the documentary doesn’t give us their reaction.
    Which I would say, depending on where Baichwal lands on all of this, is a very telling ommission.

  • Fox spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 3:39 pm

    Fox, if your point is that all art manipulates, then sure, I agree. But the question here is much more specific than that, obviously, and when you get to the point where two people with completely opposite reactions to the same photograph are being told that both reactions are being manipulated, and the very word “manipulated” is being used as a stick to beat the photographer, then I think the whole thing starts to get a little ridiculous.
    Then let me get more specific. It’s the kind of manipulation Adams is using: Black & White film, camera, lighting, staging.
    And while I don’t think I find the photo of the girl lecherous, or any of Adams photos to be intentionally mean-spirited, I find them all to be totally phony. So, in that way I guess fall in the negative camp with Marilyn.
    I don’t like these photos at all b/c I think it’s a false representation of “Appalachia Today”. I think it’s a theatrical lie.

  • Fox spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 3:45 pm

    Thus, I don’t think it’s meant to work on anybody.
    “Then it’s not manipulation.”
    Huh?!? My point is that Adams is not calculating a way to manipulate a certain segment (obviously he doesn’t think he is), but that
    doesn’t mean that he isn’t doing exactly that.

  • bill r. spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 3:46 pm

    Well, Fox, I feel like that opens up a whole ‘nother can o’ worms (what exactly is the “lie”? How do you, yourself, know that it’s a lie?) that I’m not sure I have the energy to deal with.

  • Jonathan Lapper spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 3:48 pm

    But the documentary doesn’t give us their reaction.
    Which I would say, depending on where Baichwal lands on all of this, is a very telling ommission.

    Looking at his website I got the feeling there was a lot of omitting. But then I guess we wouldn’t have the documentary.
    But just for curiosity sake, go to his website and read what’s written about the photographs. It’s very defensive. Oddly defensive.

  • bill r. spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 3:48 pm

    Fox, the word “manipulation” implies intent. If something isn’t supposed to actually manipulate anything or anyone, then it can’t be manipluation. And that’s not simply semantic nit-picking, it’s integral to the controversy.

  • Fox spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 3:52 pm

    Well, Fox, I feel like that opens up a whole ‘nother can o’ worms (what exactly is the “lie”? How do you, yourself, know that it’s a lie?) that I’m not sure I have the energy to deal with.
    I don’t know, I think.

  • bill r. spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 3:53 pm

    But just for curiosity sake, go to his website and read what’s written about the photographs. It’s very defensive. Oddly defensive.
    I’ll have to wait until I get home to read it, but if I were Adams — and I was on the level — given the gap between what I’m saying I’m doing and what others are claiming I’m doing, I might get defensive, too.
    I’m always surprised when artists are accused of being defensive. Consider how hard-core, or insulting, or even how damaging to their personal reputation some of the criticisms you’ve read have been — from respected critics, no less — and ask yourself how YOU would react.

  • bill r. spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 3:55 pm

    I don’t know, I think.
    Yes, but WHY!?
    And so on and so forth. See what I mean? It will never end!

  • Jonathan Lapper spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 3:56 pm

    Bill’s right. Manipulation does imply intent. I believe they are artistically manipulated to romanticize a fabled, primitive existence and I believe many people do see that without thinking about being manipulated into seeing it. Where I differ with Fox and Marilyn and agree with Bill is that I don’t see it as a menacing manipulation but a poetic and artistic manipulation.

  • kassy spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 3:57 pm

    I feel like an interloper, you all seem to know each other so well. :)
    bill r. says his head is spinning and that is exactly my reaction to Adams and his pictures and to the film itself. I am full of questions, is Adams exploiting his subjects? The hog killing makes me want to say yes, but the family at the end seemed so genuinely happy to be with him and he seemed to truly like them. But then again, would he have even met that family if not for taking their pictures? The film is broken into three sections; the family at the beginning, the serpent handlers, and then the family at the end; what made the director choose these three stories? And is Adam a poet or a documentarian (leaning towards poet) and what would Baichwal’s answer be to that question since the film seems to me to be neutral on that point.
    Then there is the woman who is so upset about the photo of her sister. I didn’t think there was anything sinister about that photo, I think the girl is beautiful and the man came across to me as happy, not leering. But I can certainly see how others would see a leer and I can also see how the setup of the photo would contribute to that interpretation.
    And lastly, I am curious about royalties as well, what does Adams do with the money he makes, and what about the film proceeds? And by exposing us to this subject matter are they then required to try and help financially or is that even a goal?
    If Adams and Baichwal’s intention is to provoke unanswerable questions, I think they have both succeeded very well. Thank you Marilyn for choosing this film and thank you Jonathan on whose blog I found out about TOERIFC, and thank you everyone else for the great discussion.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 3:57 pm

    A funny thing happened on the way to the comment thread. 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, and perhaps that is a reaction that the holler dwellers and Adams have. This is life in these parts. It can come as a shock when other people are shocked by your life. I remember a scene in I Vitelloni in which the boys from the country are ridiculed by the Milanese sophisticates for their shoddy underwear. The feelings of inferiority come from without. Adams, of course, knows this. I just don’t know what’s in it for the holler dwellers to keep posing. Do they really want to communicate something in these pictures, as Adams says they do? What, then? Maybe they are trusting Adams that he is conveying their message for them.

  • Jonathan Lapper spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 4:01 pm

    I’m always surprised when artists are accused of being defensive. Consider how hard-core, or insulting, or even how damaging to their personal reputation some of the criticisms you’ve read have been — from respected critics, no less — and ask yourself how YOU would react.
    This seems different. Artist sites that my wife visits don’t run around in circles defending themselves against bad reviews. I’m just saying it seems a little like he is well aware that the criticisms have nothing to do with classic triangulation and everything to do with stereotype. But more importantly, on his site you do get to see color photographs and a wealth of others that aren’t controversial at all. Which is why, for now at least, I’ll side with Adams view even if he does obfuscate the point at times.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 4:02 pm

    Welcome, Kassy. Yes, we do know each other, but we’re always welcoming more. I appreciate that you saw the film and that it provoked a lot of questions in you. I think this is a vital topic for anyone interested in film, let alone photography. We always talk about disliking directors who manipulate our emotions, and to me, that’s what Adams does, too. But his manipulations are disturbing, upsetting to the natural order in our lives, and I think that’s a good thing. I still don’t know if he has truly gotten informed consent, though, and that bothers me.

  • Fox spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 4:04 pm

    Fox, the word “manipulation” implies intent. If something isn’t supposed to actually manipulate anything or anyone, then it can’t be manipluation. And that’s not simply semantic nit-picking, it’s integral to the controversy.
    Adams should know that he is manipulating you, me, Marilyn, George Bush, Rihanna, and the singer of Coldplay (in whatever fashion) whenever he snaps one of his staged photographs.
    Would you disagree with that?
    As far as who he wants to manipulate when he’s doing this, I have no idea, but I would guess he wants to manipulate anyone who sees his photos of the Appalachians into seeing these people in a positive light. To me, he fails.

  • Fox spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 4:06 pm

    And so on and so forth. See what I mean? It will never end!
    Did you expect an end? Most debates don’t end.

  • Jonathan Lapper spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 4:07 pm

    I have to head home now so I probably won’t be able to engage again on this until tomorrow but I want to say how amazing it has been and I wonder why we didn’t do this sooner: All watch the same film during the same period of time and discuss it.
    Marilyn, thanks for introducing me to this documentary. I’ll check back in later.

  • Flickhead spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 4:09 pm

    This is probably a stupid question, but:
    Do museums pay Adams to put his work in their collections?
    If not, I’m not sure I see where his revenue comes from. It can’t be that coffee table book they show in the movie — after printing costs, tomes like that usually fall short of breaking even.
    Does he sell photos at gallery shows?

  • Fox spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 4:13 pm

    Yes, but WHY!?
    Aren’t all staged photos lies? If I put you and Marilyn and Jonathan on a horse together and take a picture, it’s not a picture of reality, it’s not what really was happening.
    To me, Adams photos are just more theatrical versions of that.

  • bill r. spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 4:17 pm

    Fox – Well, first you said his manipulation wasn’t meant to work on anybody, and now you say it’s supposed to work on everybody. And that the manipulation is meant to show these people in a positive light, which is the exact opposite of what almost everyone else on your side of the controversy seems to think he’s up to. So, since I’m about to head home, I’m going to have to reconfigure my line of argument, since you insist on being difficult.
    Did you expect an end? Most debates don’t end.
    Okay, fine, I’ll ask the questions: What specifically is the “lie”, and what makes you think it actually is a lie?
    PS – I just wish our first Film Club discussion hadn’t been such a bust.

  • bill r. spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 4:19 pm

    Aren’t all staged photos lies?
    Well, “lie” certainly seems awfully harsh to me — Jonathan, Marilyn and me on a horse indicates to me that we’d just had a delightful day! — but I see what you mean. But are you saying that all staged photographs are worthless?

  • Fox spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 4:25 pm

    Well, first you said his manipulation wasn’t meant to work on anybody…
    You made a good point and I changed my opinion on that.
    And that the manipulation is meant to show these people in a positive light,
    I said that would be my guess as to what his intent is.
    which is the exact opposite of what almost everyone else on your side of the controversy seems to think he’s up to.
    I also said I think he failed and ended up portraying them in a negative light.
    Lastly, do you disagree that Adams manipulates (whether positively or negativel) in his photos?

  • Fox spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 4:27 pm

    But are you saying that all staged photographs are worthless?
    No.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 4:27 pm

    Flickhead – I’m sure the galleries pay for his photos, though he may donate some. He has a lot of gallery shows – for example, the one that starts this film probably would attract buyers. I buy photography, and usually you can get a signed, numbered print. I doubt I’d be able to afford one of his. And don’t think those coffee table books don’t rake it in. They do.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 4:35 pm

    Well, I’m off for home, too. Here’s some pricing I found. It doesn’t say whether these are signed, probably are:
    All images are available as 16 x 20 in. and 11 x 14 in. toned gelatin silver prints made in an editions of 25 in each size. Pieces range in price from $900 to $2500 for the larger size, and from $700 to $1800 for the smaller size depending on how many have sold in the edition.

  • Fox spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 4:37 pm

    Marilyn-
    Be sure to brag to the hubby tonight that you have 135 comments on your blog!! :0)

  • Fox spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 4:41 pm

    All images are available as 16 x 20 in. and 11 x 14 in. toned gelatin silver prints made in an editions of 25 in each size. Pieces range in price from $900 to $2500 for the larger size, and from $700 to $1800 for the smaller size depending on how many have sold in the edition.
    Next Christmas, I’ll be sure to buy Bill one print for each of the rooms in his house.

  • bill r. spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 5:00 pm

    Lastly, do you disagree that Adams manipulates (whether positively or negativel) in his photos?
    To the extent that he tells his subjects where to stand, bought the pig, etc., yes. But I’m not convinced that his manipulation is intended to portray these people either more negatively or more positively than he believes them to be.

  • bill r. spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 5:05 pm

    You made a good point and I changed my opinion on that.
    Yeah, sorry for my tone there. That wasn’t cool on my part.

  • Pat spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 5:16 pm

    Coming in this late, I doubt there is anything original I can add to the discussion, but let me throw in a few random thoughts. (And please forgive me, but the thread is up to 137 comments, and I didn’t get through all of them yet.)
    I think I’m in agreement with most of you here in having a complicated response to Adams and his work. And, like Bill, I wonder how I would have reacted to the photos if I’d seen them in a book or gallery instead of in this film. It’s hard to appreciate how the photos come across in their original context, because here we’re given so much back story on Adams’ subjects that isn’t necessarily supplied in Adams’ books. (Or I don’t believe it is, I could be wrong.)
    I do absolutely agree that the critics here project their own, already well-formed preconceptions and stereotypes on to Adams’ work. Like the one who said that the photos reinforce stereotypes about the poor being lazy, shiftless and responsible for their own poverty. My reaction to that was “How the hell did he get that out of these photos?” (He reminded me of a man I briefly dated some years ago – who was, not insignificantly, a Philadephia native and the son of two university professors; he had driven through a lower class neighborhood one evening and seen lots of men out on their porches, shirtless, drinking beer, and commented “Why don’t get jobs and make themselves useful?” And my thought was “How does shirtless beer drinker on the porch = “Unemployed”?)
    On the other hand, Adams is a bit disingenuous about how these Appalachian people are a part of his own life (they’re not, really – he grew up middle class), and like Ed and Marilyn, I did notice that his speech got a whole lot folksier and twangier when he was interacting with his subjects than when he was talking to the filmmaker.
    About the photo of the girl at the screen door: I didn’t interpret the man’s smile as a leer at all, and was surprised by Marilyn’s interpretation. What bugged me most about that picture was that Adams defened it, in part, by going on and on about how that broken scrap of screen caught the light so perfectly and that he had to photograph it. I think it’s kind of irresponsible to overlook what a badly torn screen on the door says about the person behind it. It’s not so different from the thought process behind that picture of the father with the knife.
    The hog butchering photo felt kind of Annie Leibovitz-ish to me in that it was obviously staged and posed, but was still supposed to convey somehitng about the people in it.

  • kassy spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 5:26 pm

    I found an interview with Adams that was just posted on the 6th, very interesting. In it he explains how he can be from eastern Kentucky and raised all over the country at the same time:
    “I had a father who grew up in shame of his culture and himself, so he worked to become successful, middle class and a company man. He worked for a gas conversion company and traveled around the country and Europe, so my childhood was spent growing up all around the country, always going back home to Kentucky for Christmas and summers. In a way I grew up in two worlds simultaneously. My grandparents, on both sides of my family, had big farms in Appalachia and were natives to their hollers. It was a wonderful place to visit and grow up as a child.”
    He also explains a little about getting the releases, but its still not clear to me if the subjects are completely understanding of what happens with the pictures. They know books are being published, but do they know that the pictures are exhibited and being commented on by “sophisticates”?
    The full interview is here:
    http://interviewwithanartist.com/?p=323

  • Rick spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 6:08 pm

    Jonathan said:
    But it seems you, me and Flickhead don’t have as much of a problem with the final result as Marilyn, Fox and Rick(?) do. I don’t know about Rick because he had to bow out early.
    Rick is ambivalent about the whole thing. I think that he clearly manipulates, but I think some on this thread are confusing intent with motive. Not the same thing at all. Every time he arranges a photo, moving folks around to suit the (as Jonathan points out) Triangular Construction (or whatever), he manipulates. What is his motive behind the manipulation? To make a living? I make a living visiting folks (partially) in the hospital. Does the fact that I make a living from that mean I’m not sincere in my concern for them? I hope not …
    Does he intentionally “exploit” (a loaded word if I ever heard one) in a negative sense? I don’t think so, but is the result that exploitation? Probably.
    The comment thread has concentrated so far on Adams, I’d like to shift it to Baichwal, and her stance … can we discern it? Does she use intentionally “manipulative” (there’s that word again) methods to push an agenda? If she does, how does the editing/mise en scene support that agenda?
    I’ll go out on a limb and say that she seems to side more with Adams …

  • kassy spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 6:31 pm

    Rick said:
    The comment thread has concentrated so far on Adams, I’d like to shift it to Baichwal, and her stance … can we discern it? Does she use intentionally “manipulative” (there’s that word again) methods to push an agenda? If she does, how does the editing/mise en scene support that agenda?
    She presents both sides, but I really wish we knew more about what she was thinking. I do feel that by only choosing the three overall subjects (the first family, the serpents, and the last family) that we were being deliberately led toward a conclusion. I checked out Adams’ website and there is so much more to him than what was in the film, especially his color work. Why did she leave out what she did and why did she use what she did? I don’t want to use the M word, but I think its present in her editing and choice of pictures.

  • Bob Turnbull spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 6:32 pm

    Holy crap! 141 comments already!? Geez, the speed you people converse online makes it tough to jump in there – then again I’m joining in 8 hours after the fray began, so who’s fault is that?
    I saw this film at the Hot Docs Film Festival in the Spring of 2008 as part of a Baichwal retrospective. I thought it was absolutely terrific for a number of reasons:
    1) Putting aside the controversy for a moment (I’m not dismissing, just pushing to the corner), the photos are beautiful. When I wrote about it (nowhere near as eloquently of course), I mentioned that the crevices of some of the faces resembled the hollers in which they live. Even better than the photos was meeting the people behind them – far different than anyone I know and very interesting to see slices of their life. In particular the developmentally challenged kids were incredibly sweet. The young girl was so loving with her family and seemed to really engage with Adams himself. Probably not something that would have come from the photo by itself…
    2) I loved how Baichwal dropped all the sound out when showing the photos to further highlight them while they are on screen.
    3) I think Baichwal does a great job in making the film also about art in context and whether the artist has any responsibility for that. The fact that the majority of the comments about the film have specifically been about Adams and what his own responsibility was/is (and not about Baichwal), shows to me that Baichwal did a great job in making people ask the questions. Which I think is a pretty high compliment for a documentary.
    4) As far as that picture of the young girl with the possibly leering man behind her, I thought the woman critiquing it was totally putting it into her own context because SHE found it embarrassing (since she is related to the girl). That young girl is not only gorgeous but she looks so very proud, in control and strong. I might even read into the photo that she may have to take care of the man behind her. But that’s my own reading…
    OK, I better post this before the number of comments tops 300…

  • Pat spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 6:33 pm

    Rick – I’m going to go out on that limb with you.
    I think Baichwal’s film is slightly more sympathetic to Adams than not, if only because we get to see him not only as “talking head/commentator,” but also see him interacting with his subjects. I think there is some genuine friendship and compassion between him and the people he photographs, even if he has mixed motives deep down. I mean we see him holding that mentally challenged girl on his lap, see him eating with families, handling snakes, etc. We see him mixing in and being accepted. If there are some people he’s photographed who don’t like him or the results, we aren’t seeing or hearing from them.

  • Rick Olson spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 6:52 pm

    Kassy, I think you’re right. For instance, we are led to think that the critics are effete snobs by the simple fact that we begin with Adams in the hollers, we see the folks he photographs first. That lays the ground — however slight — for how we view the critics once she cuts to the gallery. And what’s with that low distorting angle we first see the inside of the gallery show at, or the establishing shot that lurks outside the windows of the gallery before we cut down onto the floor?

  • Rick Olson spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 6:54 pm

    Pat, that’s a good point: she rides around with Adams, showing him setting up, interacting with his subjects, but the critics are all only “talking heads.” Although, her close observation of Adams does lead to the “expose” if that’s the right word of his different demeanor with different folks and the contradictions in his life story that have been mentioned.

  • Fox spoke:
    12th/01/2009 to 10:56 pm

    Hello Rick, Bob, Kassy, and Pat-
    I wanna jump in on the “perspective of Baichwal” as well.
    I left feeling that she is absolutely on the side of Adams. At the same time, I don’t think she disrespects the opinions of people who disagree.
    However, I would point to two reasons why I think she symapthizes with Adams':
    1. Even though there is no narration and we don’t hear Baichwal’s questions, she doesn’t seem to challenge him with follow-up questions to his answers on the most controvesial accusations of him.
    2. In editing, a critic/head that calls Adams out in a negative way is often followed by critic/head that defends him. (EX: The “sophisticated critic” is followed by the critic that says that that type of comment is insulting).

  • Jonathan Lapper spoke:
    13th/01/2009 to 6:09 am

    Fox, I think you’re right. I don’t think Adams photography calls for a Mike Wallace style grilling but it would have been nice to have an interviewer who would follow up explanations of photo set-ups by Adams with more detailed questions about the criticisms.
    To step away from the debate for a minute and talk about Baichwal, this movie has made me want to see her first doc, Let It Come Down: The Life of Paul Bowles and Manufactured Landscapes about the photography of Edward Burtynsky. Her latest doc is called Act of God and is all about electricity and lightning which she makes sound hit or miss at this point:
    In our “lightning film,” Act of God, there is no guide. There are all these different stories that have become fairly tangential as the shooting has progressed. We’re putting electrodes on musician Fred Frith as he’s improvising, to see the electromagnetic activity in his brain. We go to Cuba to follow a thousand people at a parade celebrating the god of lightning, Chango. The question is: Will all these associations collapse under their own weight, or will they come together in their own organic way? We’re just at an assembly stage, so I don’t know the answer to that question. But it could go either way, because this is new territory: to start with a very general idea — issues of randomness and chance, what are the metaphysical effects of being struck by lightning, what is electricity — and then try to turn it into a coherent film.

  • Joe Campanella spoke:
    13th/01/2009 to 8:13 am

    Wow. I’m so behind I don’t know where to begin….
    Let me start off by saying what a conversation starter this picture has been. This is the most comments I’ve ever seen in such a short amount of time!
    Marilyn- Great review. Great points of discussion as well.
    Before I get into my opinions on Shelby, let me get my problems with Baichwal out of the way first.
    The film she made here certainly gives us much to think about, but to be honest I found her filmmaking kind of flat. (She’s very lucky the subject she chose was so interesting.) The movie isn’t shot or edited in a way that would make me want to see her other films, even though Jonathan’s post above makes me want to check out ACT OF GOD. That said, I like Marilyn can’t stop thinking about this movie.
    I think I agree with Bill here when I say I don’t really find these pictures as exploitative. Sure there is manipulation going on, as many of you have said, but I don’t think Shelby is in any way trying to reenforce these stereotypes that the public has against these people.
    I understand what the critic from the Times was saying when she said she wouldn’t have a problem with it if he presented the photographs as interpretations of the culture, but isn’t every picture, where documentary or not, up for interpretation.
    No matter what you see, whether it be television, a photograph or a film, one has to know that it is a reproduction of real life. Unless those images go directly from the real world to your brain there is a middle man and one should always be aware of it.
    As for Shelby, I really love his photographs. They are aesthetically pleasing yes, but also have a kind of honesty to them (is that the wrong word to use?)
    When people criticize his work, are they doing so purely because he doesn’t have them wearing their Sunday clothes? I mean, these people obviously look the way they do in the pictures. The old lady did smoke a pipe. They do have funerals at home. The pig killing, I give you, was staged, but it did make for a charmingly grotesque photograph. What I think I’m trying to say here is that 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.
    Also, one of the final shots of the movie, in which Baichwal cuts from a old worn up bridge to what looks to be the same bridge, in real life, intact pretty much sums up the way in which most of the people in the film were looking at Shelby’s work…
    …in the photo it looked tired, worn and old, but in reality (on video) it looked pretty normal to me.
    (AS A SIDE NOTE I’D LIKE TO SAY WHAT A PLEASURE IT WAS TO COME TO THESE COMMENTS SO LATE. READING THROUGH THEM ALL AT ONCE, AT 3AM LAST NIGHT WAS LIKE SITTING IN ON A ROUNDTABLE DISCUSSION WITH SOME OF THE SMARTEST CINEPHILES I KNOW!)

  • 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

    Marilyn,
    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.
    RICK-
    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 http://shelby-lee-adams-editorial.blogspot.com/

    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: http://farm6.staticflickr.com/5150/5669077337_2e0c1cd515_z.jpg ), 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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