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

In 2002, Jennifer Baichwal directed a fabulous film about Shelby Lee Adams’ controversial photos of the poor people in the Appalachian Mountains — The True Meaning of Pictures: Shelby Lee Adams’ Appalachia.

Adams was born in Kentucky and has spent 30 years documenting and photographing the poor families in the various hollers of Appalachia. He’s become very good friends with some of these families and has completely gained their trust.

Most of us would look at Adams’ photos and describe the people in them as hillbillies or “banjo people”, straight out of the film Deliverance. Is he trying to exploit them or is he merely documenting their way of life?


The subjects in Adams’ photos feel that his work is harmless and a true representation of their culture. As a viewer, you get the sense that Adams truly feels he is documenting the Appalachian way of life. Several art critics featured in the film, feel otherwise. Adams stages some of his photos and uses theatrical lighting to great effect. His work is incredibly beautiful, complex, and more fine art than documentary photography.

He’s exhibited his photos around the world, sold prints and published many books about the Appalachian people He’s become very successful and made a good living by being a photographer. Baichwal doesn’t make any judgments in the film. But at a Q&A after the film, she questioned how people at a Berlin gallery of Adams’ work would read his photographs while sipping champagne and eating smoked salmon. They’re probably going to see the stereotype instead of the friendly people that Adams has gotten to know over the years.

I haven’t mentioned the slaughter of a hog, the practice of snake handling, pipe smoking grannies, inbreeding and the high mortality rate up in the Appalachian hills. For that, you’ll have to watch the film and it’s a good one. ***½

Films are rated from 1 to 4 stars.

Shelby Lee Adams website: shelby-lee-adams.blogspot.com
CBC News interview of Shelby Lee Adams
Mercury Films

Posted in Hot Docs at 10:36 PM