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Appalachian Legacy: Photographs Paperback – July 1, 1998
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For my part, I think that for all his great skill as an artist, when you boil it all down, Shelby Lee Adams is a disingenuous and irresponsible photographer who doesn't have the social conscience he says he has. Adams defends his work by saying that these photographs are not meant to be documentary photographs, but "art" and therefore do not have to portray reality. (In fact, the people he portrays are essentially models -- none of these shots were taken spontaneously or "in action." As you can see in the documentary, their postures and expressions were considerably manipulated by Adams.)
Adams has every right to create the kind of art he wishes, but considering the damage that art photographers have done (and still do) to places like Appalachia through their fixation on "artistic" subjects like poverty and industrial dilapidation, you would think that Adams might have had a little more tact and chosen another subject for his art and a less stereotyped setting than Eastern Kentucky.
As an example of the potential impact Adams' photos can have, one of the images in "Appalachian Legacy" depicts a man holding a knife standing next to his mentally-handicapped son. According to the photographer, this is an allegory of God sacrificing his son Jesus. I don't care where you come from or whether you've ever been to Appalachia: the overwhelming majority of people in America viewing this picture for the first time are probably going to think "this is an ignorant hillbilly trying to kill his retarded son." Unless the symbolic connection Adams wants us to make is made, then this picture is not art but a piece of irresponsible photography. If Adams thinks otherwise, then I think he puts too much trust in the average American viewer.
Adams has never deliberately sought to misrepresent the people of Eastern Kentucky (in fact, he is from the region himself and the people in this book are personal friends of his), but that's what he ends up doing. What I doubt isn't Adams' intentions. I doubt his social conscience and his plain common sense. If he really wanted to make an artistic statement about human resilience and the beauty of Appalachia, there is an enormous amount of photographic leg-room room to maneuver in besides doing staged black-and-white character studies of the poorest of the poor, obviously reminiscent of Depression-era photography. I think the kind of social conscience Adams awakens in other people is exactly the kind that Appalachia doesn't need: sympathy. It needs identification and understanding. Adams' photography has just about nothing to do with the grassroots struggle against poverty and miseducation in places like Eastern Kentucky. What Adams is primarily interested in is the visual effect of light on bodies and walls. As an artistic endeavor, that is a perfectly legitimate pursuit, but Adams should have had more tact than to try to achieve it at the expense of Appalachia.
The fact that many people in Appalachia have been outraged by Adams' books ought to tell you something. Cavalier "artistes" from the East Coast and the legion of disembodied museum curators who come to their defence can boo-hoo about Dwight Billings and other people with a real social conscience who dare to criticize one of "their kind". I'd prefer to trust the people who actually live in Appalachia: they're the ones who have to deal with the issues created by Adams. If Adams was photographing an upscale New Jersey suburb full of folks with degrees from Princeton, I wouldn't think twice about calling his photographs great works of art. But he's not. He's photographing Appalachia, and that requires a little more tact.
I was transfixed by the book and could not put it down. Yes, it is disturbing, but y'know, life is like that. This is not a book to be flipped through and returned to the coffee table. This is a book to be chewed and ingested - one that takes some thought and time to experience. If you are ready, come. You won't be disappointed.