Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Is Shelby Lee Adams a Realist or a Pornographer?

Shelby Lee Adams has been photographing his friends and neighbors in Kentucky for years. Now, he has gotten the attention of folks who find the people he photographs painful to look at, and so his work has been labeled Poverty Porn by one Jason Huettner.

Check out the story HERE, on an interesting blog called Hyperallergic: Sensitive to Art and its Discontents, which at the moment also includes other interesting stories about photography in the South, including this one on the Marigny section of New Orleans and this one on Amy Mackie and the Southern Open, an art show she juried in Lafayette, LA.

I bet there's more stuff on this blog of interest to us, and I'll start digging it up.

For the moment, back to Shelby Lee Adams.

I will defend any Southern photographer's right to document Southern culture in all its diversity and complexity. The term "pornography" is a complex word, usually referring to the viewer, not the subject, and applicable to work intended to exploit the viewer's sense of inadequacies in life, catering to unsatisfied desires for control, for possession, for the illusion of power through superficial visual gratification. 

In fact, the term may well be applied far more readily in Southern photography to some of the work shot for magazines like Southern Living and Garden and Gun, where the white country club culture of the South is glorified, commodified, and celebrated and made available in all its sterile glory to the rest of us for a couple of bucks an issue.

Jason Huettner ends his piece on Adams in rather condescending fashion, finding that Adams does not measure up to his standard for photographing folks who are not part of the middle class, which must include awareness that one is working in "an ethnographic or documentary capacity" and "must be cognizant of the politics of representation and the agency of their subjects."

In Adams' work, I in fact see people who enjoy being who they are, living the lives they have come to live. I have no idea how these folks really feel about themselves, but in Adams' images they seem at peace with themselves. If anything, Adams' images are neither realistic nor pornographic but romantic, owing far more to Flannery O'Connor than to Larry Flynt.

Joerg Colberg over on the Conscientious blog also has some concerns about Huettner's piece, though they are different from mine. He argues that complaining about the kind of work Adams does is useless, because "our hand-wringing about these photographs ultimately won’t have any consequences - unless we spring into some sort of actual action."  Which we are unlikely to do.

I'm all for Shelby Lee Adams. And, contrary to Joerg Colberg, I'm not wringing my hands over these folks. Adams' work clearly makes some middle class folks uncomfortable at a time when so much fine art photography is about cleverness, irony, and the celebration of the reassuringly bland. His work is a reminder that people who live differently make us want to make them like us.

The folks in Adams' images look remarkably like some of the folks I'm related to. I don't want to live their lives, and they don't want to live mine, but once a year at the family reunion we acknowledge we are kinfolks, and the South is big enough for all of us.


  1. From Jason Huettner's essay: "He is functioning as dramatist and director, breaking with the traditional mold of a documenting photographer in the vein of Dorothea Lange or Jacob Riis and modifying situations for maximum effect." Huettner should consider that many of Riis' photographs were also posed, with Riis paying his subjects small amounts of money or cigarettes. The "documentary tradition" is a bit more complicated than what's proposed by his disjointed essay.

  2. Danny, complete agreement here. Adams' work brings out some of the complexities of the image/viewer relationship, as well as of the photographer/subject relationship, in documentary-style photography.

  3. Huettner's essay is simplistic, condescending, and mis-understands the idea of "documentary" photography in many different ways...but he has a point in his last statement: "The presence of stereotypes in society should not exclude the poor from being photographed, but photographers working in an ethnographic or documentary capacity must be cognizant of the politics of representation and the agency of their subjects."

    From his interview in "The True Meaning of Pictures" and from interviews I've read with him elsewhere, Adams seems to completely ignore the social dimension of his pictures. He seems to think that the stereotype is something that we, the viewer, are reading into the picture, and not what he intends to photograph. Which leads me to believe that he's either unaware of the effects that his techniques have on depicting these people...or he's being deliberately misleading about his intentions.

    I don't dislike all of Adams' pictures, or think they're all exploitative. But his use of distortion and lighting (especially when he lights his subjects from underneath) imply a strangeness that can often times be very unflattering. I think a lot of his pictures imply sexual and physical violence in a very deliberate way.

    I care deeply about the South and the way it's depicted in pictures. Compared to a lot of Appalachian photographers, I think you could call many of his pictures grotesqueries. Not because of WHAT he depicts (he is extremely defensive on his website about his subject matter), but definitely HOW he does.

  4. Shelby Lee Adams's work too often strikes me as condescending toward its subjects. To my eye, it's not that his subjects are "painful to look at," but, rather, that Adams photographs them in ways that seem more to denigrate than to respect them.

    That said, I think Huettner misses the point when he complains that Adams interjects himself into his "documentary" work. In fact, that is true of every photographer -- documentarians included. Every photograph says at least as much about its maker as it does about its subject.

    Thank you for offering up food for thought -- much appreciated.

  5. I certainly agree with Sanders that photographs tell us a great deal about the photographer as well as his/her subject, but I'm also aware that photographs have as well some of the properties of a Rorschach image.

    That is, our reaction to a photograph reveals things about us as well. One difference is that Rorschach images are totally about our private imaginings while our response to photographs is both personal and part of a socially constructed framework of meaning.

    I find looking at some of Adams' images to be disturbing, but I'm also aware that part of that discomfort comes from my awareness that the folks in his images fulfill certain stereotypes of Southerners that I'd rather folks "out there" wouldn't have of us who live "down here."

    They cater to the images of rural Southerners nurtured by folks like that jackass of an writer James Dickey in the novel Deliverance and especially in the movie version of it. I look at these images and expect to hear "Dueling Banjos" playing in the soundtrack.

    I personally hate to see the persistence of poverty in the South, and especially in the rural South. I know the people Adams shows us would be easier to look at if they were in images by Evans or Wolcott or Lange and therefore safely back there in time and not part of today's reality.

    But I also know from the Foxfire books and other writings, as well as personal acquaintance with folks a lot like the people in Adam's pictures that these folks have their own dignity and in fact often preserve histories of practice and belief that sustained my ancestors.

    I do not know how Adams views the reaction to his work, but I gather that he's been photographing some of these folks for years and they seem pleased to be the subjects of his work. I think that's worth paying attention to, as well to as my own personal responses.