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.