Director: Jennifer Baichwal
By Marilyn Ferdinand
There’s a saying that a picture’s worth 1,000 words. While this statement is a bit vague, I think I’m safe in saying that, generally, it means that a photograph can convey more information instantaneously than can be gotten from reading 1,000 words on the same subject. Photos are documents—living memories, even—of what we looked like at a certain time of life, where we’ve been, things we’ve seen, and people we knew and met. They tell us truths about ourselves that the vagaries of memory may have erased or distorted. They bear witness. But is a photograph a reliable witness? I’m going to quote from an interview I conducted with Errol Morris earlier this year regarding his film Standard Operating Procedure (2008) that sums up his belief about information contained within the borders of a photograph. My questions are bolded:
But you talk about putting the photographs in a context, otherwise we don’t really understand what we’re seeing.
And to that end, am I required to interview every single person in the U.S. government? You have so much god-damned context. America puzzles me at the moment. There is an immense amount written about the higher-ups. What the fuck does America need to be convinced that the material is staring them in the face? Do they have to be hit over the head with a smoking gun? What would you like? What is your dream interview that you would have liked to have heard in this particular movie to clarify things for you?
Not to clarify…
Then to do what?
If you’re only going to present, just as in a trial, only the evidence that the lawyers want you to hear. I’ve been on a jury, and I had lots of questions that I was not allowed to ask. I only got what they wanted me to see, and from my point of view, if I just look at what these people are saying and what they’re doing…
If it seems like I’m saying they’re lily white, I’m not saying that, and my apologies, because I’m not making that argument. But I’m making a somewhat different argument that…hard to know where to even start. You look at a photograph, you think you know what the photograph is about. You don’t. You look at the photograph of Sabrina Harman smiling next to Al-Jamadi’s corpse, you think she’s responsible for the murder. She isn’t.
Anyone who makes pictures, still or moving, and anyone who looks at them create consciously or unconsciously a context for interpreting those images. That context may be as simple as “that’s pretty” or “that’s ugly” based on the image and one’s visceral or instinctual reaction to it. In the case of art photography, which is designed to do more than document reality, more complex contextualization often is required to interpret not only the “text” but the “subtext.” And without those 1,000 words, viewers must rely on their storehouse of information about subjects similar to those depicted by the photographer. This fact is precisely what makes Shelby Lee Adams’ photographs of poor residents of the hollers of the Appalachian Mountains near Hazard, Kentucky, controversial in the larger world.
Noted Canadian documentarian Jennifer Baichwal traveled with Adams to Appalachia to talk with and film him and his models at work and at rest. She also interviewed a sociologist, several art critics and photographers, and one former holler resident to provide the widest possible context for the viewers of her film to decide for themselves, as one holler resident puts it, “the true meaning of pictures.”
The opening shot is a straight-down aerial view of a dense forest. It is lushly green with shadows and shapes suggesting texture and depth, but like the screen on which it is viewed, it remains essentially flat and free of telling information. We bring our knowledge of the film we are watching to it; thus, we assume it is in Appalachia, though it could just as easily be a wood in Baichwal’s native Quebec.
Our impression is reinforced by the sound of the voiceover that brought us into the film and that is now accompanying this image—a man speaking in the halting, ecstatic rhythms of a rural preacher. We move down into and through the forest and then view a series of still photographs: two weathered men leaning their bent elbows on the seat of the same chair, their bibles open, their hands clasped in prayer; a series of family portraits, including one with cows; lone images of an ancient woman, a white-bearded man holding a banjo. Finally, the camera moves into the black corner of one image, and we are transported to an art gallery full of city sophisticates looking at these photographs. One woman waves her hand in front of the picture with the cows, suggesting something about the composition to her companion.
More 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 people have expressed that Berthie resembles Mammy Yokum from L’il Abner. It’s not his fault that comic strip was drawn, apparently to reflect real life. The real problem is not the drawing but the caricature of mountain people as dumb hicks fit for the funnies. One could argue that the Blondie comic strip similarly lampoons the middle-class readers of L’il Abner and even consumers of Adams’ picture books. Are Adams’ critics just blowing PC smoke?
New York Times critic Vicki Goldberg complains about Adams’ set-ups that purport to show authentic holler life, but actually are historical recreations. Specifically, she mentions the hog butchering picture (above). Indeed, we see Adams’ own archival footage of the slaughter, with the Napiers explaining how it used to be done and then standing by during each part of the process as Adams films and snaps. The final photo is a rather gruesome family portrait, with the hog’s head resting in the foreground in a metal pan. There certainly are a number of ways to interpret this photo. It’s unlikely that the family would have posed with a hog in this way had they been able to photograph themselves; they’d be more likely to photograph the special occasion that surely would have required the slaughter of the costly animal the Napiers were furnished for the photo shoot because they were too poor to own it themselves. As I viewed the photo, I was reminded more of the sport fishermen and hunters—not poor by any means—who pose with their mammoth kills, or of the photos of picnics with a lynched man in the background. Goldberg’s objection to this photo as “set up” ignores the fact that photographers routinely stage their subjects. That Adams may be critiquing the consumers of this photo seems to escape sophisticated readers such as critic A. D. Coleman, who says, (correction from previous version) “These are late 20th century, early 21st century photographs with a great deal of visual sophistication to them, and I think that they call for a very sophisticated kind of reading. And I’m not sure that the people he’s photographing have the education, the visual educational background to understand how these pictures read. And if that’s patronizing, I apologize for it, but I just think it’s so.”
One critic who can’t be contradicted so easily is Dwight Billings, then a professor of sociology at the University of Kentucky: “The problem for me with these portraits is they certainly are telling stories, but the stories are kind of left to the reader to imagine, and we know what the reader is imbued with to imagine: a hundred years of stereotypes.” Baichwal immediately cuts in scenes from Deliverance showing the retarded banjo picker and the violent mountain men attacking Jon Voight and his friends. It’s true—popular culture hasn’t done holler dwellers any favors.
Another authoritative critic of Adams’ work is Louise Hall, a holler native who escaped its poverty, got an education, and moved into the larger world. She is appalled by a photo Adams took of her beautiful, younger sister that shows her leaning through a torn screen door with a man smiling against a wall in the background. While Hall seems to think the poverty of the picture takes away from the girl’s beauty (and most likely finds embarrassing now that she has felt the sting of the outside world’s regard for her place of origin), I find this photo objectionable as a stereotype associated with child sexual abuse. The man in the background doesn’t appear just to be smiling—he seems to be leering. It would take a lot of exposure to the peculiar smiles of the holler dwellers to see this smile as normal and friendly, and I don’t imagine the casual observer would have that opportunity. Adams’ eerie use of lighting to accentuate his black-and-white photography gives this and many of his other photos a sinister, noir-like quality.
Yet, it is Shelby Lee Adams himself who most calls his work into question. He says his family moved around a lot when he was growing up. But then he establishes his legitimacy as an insider by saying he grew up in Hazard. Which is it? He also says he was of the middle class in Hazard and came into contact with the holler folk, not that he actually lived among them and called them friend. He says he never publishes a photo not approved by his subjects; he certainly can’t afford to antagonize them, he says. He says he has made thousands of pictures that he gives to his subjects—a generous gesture, I suppose, given that he makes a fortune off the ones he makes for himself. (I have been able to find no evidence that he shares his economic good fortune with his subjects.) His accent and folksy talk disappear when he’s alone with Baichwal and her crew. He has a foot in both worlds, and yet he stands apart, insecurely, from them both. Why? Because he’s an artist? Because he’s a con man?
Adams’ introduction to his book Appalachian Portraits says, “My work has been an artist’s search for a deeper understanding of my heritage and myself, using photography as a medium and the Appalachian people as collaborators with their own desires to communicate. I hope my photographs confront viewers, reminding them of their own vulnerability and humanity. I hope, too, that viewers will see in these photographs something of the abiding strength and resourcefulness and dignity of the mountain people.” There’s no question that he accomplishes most of these aims. Certainly, he records the dignity and strength of many of these people, from the awe-inspiring portraits of coal miners, to the community-centered home funerals, to the majestic landscapes of which they are a part.
He also plumbs some very disturbing depths, using, for example, a family with retarded and deformed “children” in diapers to examine his relationship to Christianity. Perhaps the holler dwellers were the stuff of nightmares during his years in Hazard, frightening images he recreates in order to exorcise them. Perhaps he finds appalling a community that accepts child brides and endless pregnancies that use up and kill its women. He almost never shoots people smiling, adding to the negative impression of his vision. And if his subjects don’t see these impulses in his work, even if they concede the man the right to make a living (something many of them can’t) and like the pictures he publishes, is Coleman right that they are being exploited? Are 1,000 words from Mein Kampf equal to 1,000 words from Othello? Do the two Adamses—Ansel and Shelby Lee—occupy the same moral universe?
It’s clear from watching the comprehensive documentary Jennifer Baichwal has executed that these holler dwellers are well served by her more rounded view of their lives, the circumstances that made them and keep them grindingly poor, and an extended exposure to the people who might emerge from a Shelby Lee Adams photo primarily as grotesque. Of course, Baichwal’s camera can be deceptive, too, recording some moments, choosing to leave out others. And much can be done through the editing process—the order in which Adams reveals the seeming contradictions of his early years may have been changed for dramatic or persuasive impact. The shocking picture of the man and the pig’s head at the top of this review is part of a series of photos Adams took of people with animals; most of them are touching and even sweet. Baichwal spends a good deal of time on Adams’ work with the snake-handling sect of the Pentecostal church, which certainly tips the balance of the film into the bizarre; yet Adams’ photos of people and animals show dogs, cats, geese, chickens as well as snakes. I have a photo of my brother holding a boa constrictor as part of his docent duties for the Lincoln Park Zoo. Without his docent’s uniform, he might look just as bizarre.
Baichwal ends her film as she started it, with the implacable treetops filling her frame. Her provocative challenge remains suspended in air. What is the true meaning of pictures?
Visit Shelby Lee Adams’ home page here.