Are Shelby Lee Adams images fine art or are they another example of white trash photography?
Adams’ photographs of Appalachia are simultaneously reminiscent of the WPA photographers and Diane Arbus. He studies a place were extreme poverty is rampant and strangeness is endemic. While all the photographs were taken between 1989 and 2008, there is the feeling that the depression never left this place and neither did the people.
Adams devoted an entire book to the Napier family, residents of Beehive, Kentucky. The family live at the end of a holler, the local name for an Appalachian valley, giving rise to strong family ties and an even stronger Kentucky accent. So when the mama of the house talks about splitting firewood in the winter with bare feet, you know that she isn’t lying or exaggerating. And best of all, I don’t think the family could come up with a full set of teeth between them
But while the family is real, the photographs are debatable. They are not candid, but are in fact, staged productions. The extent of the production is really at heart of the question. That pig on a stick in the picture below, was bought by Adams but prepared by the Napiers. Did he coax them into performing or was he simply helping the documentary process along?
For a much better analysis on this question, check out the documentary on his work, The True Meaning of Pictures
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