Saturday, November 13, 2010

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

Jennifer Baichwal


A film about the fine line between art, ethnography, and exploitation, The True Meaning of Pictures explores the work of photographer Shelby Lee Adams. His work is both technically proficient and artistically resonant, but because it features images of poor residents of Appalachian hollers, some have decried it as manipulative or exploitative.  Director Jennifer Baichwal gives everyone a voice, from the residents in the photographs (including several mentally retarded individuals as well as a venom-drinking Pentecostal snake-handler who is proud of his scars) to Adams himself, and from outraged family members of those in the photos to art critics who respect the abrasive and problematic nature of the work. The title, of course, begs to start an argument. What do these pictures actually mean, and isn't the "true" meaning more in the beholder than in the subject?  A work that appreciates the complexities of the issue of representation and questions the idea of rights to self-representation. After all, when a man in one of these photos chooses to hold out a knife because he is personally proud of his new knife, does the provocative proximity of this knife to his mentally-disabled son imply more than pride of possession? Of course, but to what end? Who gains and who loses? The film leaves this question elegantly open-ended.


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