Friday, September 5, 2008
Rural Subject, Urban Audience
...i just saw this 2002 documentary. here are my notes.
The True Meaning of Pictures: Shelby Lee Adams' Appalachia
For over thirty years, the camera of Shelby Lee Adams has been fixed on the denizens of the Appalachian landscape. Whether this portraiture serves to exalt or exploit its subjects, however, is an open question. Importantly, the idea that Adams’ work might be inadvertently betraying and disgracing the very people he seeks to honor does not hover silently over the documentary; instead, the film directly confronts this debate by not only giving voice to art critics and professional photographers, but also through first-person testimonials from Adams himself and the subjects he documents. Arguments can be (and are) made for each case, and the film draws much of its tension therein.
Adams’ portraits capture Appalachians up close and posed among their hardscrabble wares. Their faces—photographed in stunning black and white—radiate with grief and stoic candor. Some subjects beam with beauty and some overwhelm us with suggestions of abject poverty and mental disability. Is Adams Othering these individuals, or does his work challenge our consumer-based, often Barbie-based beauty norms?
In the film’s second act, Adams’ portraiture centers on the Appalachian subgenre of religious serpent handling. And when one handler nearly dies from a rattlesnake attack, the audience can’t help but wonder whether the camera’s presence made this outcome more likely.
The True Meaning of Pictures works as a meta-statement upon the contested definition and practice of Documentary. The film also reads as an invaluable behind-the-lens look at the prints that populate our galleries and coffee table books.
(Here's a useful link for this film.)