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Docurama presents
The True Meaning of Pictures: Shelby Lee Adams' Appalachia (2002)

"I'm trying to make right what the media has done wrong, for myself, for the people I photograph."
- Shelby Lee Adams

Review By: Jon Danziger   
Published: November 24, 2003

Stars: Shelby Lee Adams
Other Stars: A. D. Coleman, Wendy Ewald, Vicki Goldberg, Mary Ellen Mark
Director: Jennifer Baichwal

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 01h:10m:09s
Release Date: November 25, 2003
UPC: 767685956731
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

One of my best friends is from Knoxville, and on more than one occasion, he has (rightly) pointed out that there's only one acceptable prejudice in America anymore, and that's against those disparagingly referred to as "rednecks." He prides himself on his heritage, as he should, as we all should; but he's keenly sensitive that the sort of casually offensive references that were made generations ago—about African Americans, or Native Americans, or Jews, or those of Asian descent—have been rightly done away with, in the better part of the public discourse, anyway. But not the image of the hillbilly, who remains an object of derision.

Shelby Lee Adams is a photographer from Kentucky, and his principal subjects are the poor people of rural Appalachia; this documentary considers the artist, his models, and the reception of his work. There's unquestionably something haunting and powerful in many of Adams' photographs, in which the subjects look disarmingly directly into the camera—the question is, though, if these are works of journalism, or of art. Is Adams giving us something of the essence of life in Appalachia, or just making photographs that appeal to him? Is he working in the tradition of Walker Evans, or Diane Arbus? And is he telling us one thing but doing another, trying to have it both ways?

There's no simple answer, of course—Adams defends his own work, and those who appear in his pictures are universally supportive. But there's an obvious and uncomfortable cultural divide: Adams photographs some of the poorest Americans, and seeing their pictures hanging in hoity toity galleries as black-clad urbanites sip Chardonnay is a little nauseous. But things don't just break down along the lines of "civilized" and "primitive"—a good number of people in Kentucky aren't too happy with Adams either, for they feel that his work plays directly into the worst sorts of stereotypes about the South: granny smoking a pipe, no-accounts sipping on jelly jars filled with moonshine, intimations of incest and inbreeding, the sorts of callous generalizations that have been made, and that Southerners have come to resent, at least since Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society program. (The film even includes a few clips from Deliverance, the sine qua non of Hollywood's version of Appalachia.) A sister of one of Adams' subjects even goes so far as to say, "He has disgraced our family."

Adams seems to have a genuine affection for his subjects, but he's clearly not a documentarian. Here's one example: he bought a hog for a poor family, so that he could document them killing it, and snap a photograph of them posed around the carcass. Looking at it, if you didn't know better, you might guess that this was typical behavior after the kill—but it takes a critic from the New York Times to alert us to the fact that this is seriously posed, a long way from the truth.

Do Adams' subjects know what they're getting into? One gallery owner suggests that they lack the visual sophistication to get Adams' work, but another photographer, Mary Ellen Mark, sticks up for the subjects: "Just because they're poor doesn't mean they're stupid." Whatever the case, there's a whole lot of Southern Gothic on display, both in Adams' photographs and in this documentary; it doesn't really forge much new ground, and most of the intellectual arguments about Adams' work are presented in the first couple of minutes, so the rest feels like variations on the theme. Still, this is fairly provocative and interesting stuff, on both aesthetic and socioeconomic levels, and especially given the film's relatively brief running time, is surely worth a look.

Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: B


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Some of this was shot on video, and some on film; given the many location shoots and the vérité style, the camerawork and transfer are creditable enough, with little new interference introduced in the port over to DVD.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: Audio quality is sufficient; the mix has some crackle and hiss, but again, that's the nature of the beast.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
12 Other Trailer(s) featuring Speaking in Strings, Bob Dylan: Dont Look Back, Paul Taylor: Dancemaker, Sound and Fury, Brother's Keeper, Sophie B. Hawkins: The Cream Will Rise, Todd McFarlane: The Devil You Know, Go Tigers!, Keep The River On Your Right, Porn Star: The Legend of Ron Jeremy, Lost in La Mancha, See How They Run
Packaging: Amaray
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. production stills
  2. Docurama catalog
Extras Review: Brief biographies are provided for Adams, Jennifer Baichwal, the film's director and co-producer, and Nick de Pencier, Baichwal's producing partner and director of photography. There are also eight production stills from the shoot, and a healthy number of trailers accompanying the Docurama catalog.

Extras Grade: C-


Final Comments

Add equal parts Flannery O'Connor and Robert Flaherty, and you might come up with something like this, an intellectually provocative consideration of both the artistic process and the poorest among us. It's odd, certainly, but oddly compelling, as well.


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