Lying to be true: Part two

I just watched the rest of The true meaning of pictures: Shelby Lee Adams’ Appalachia.


Absolutely recommended viewing for anyone interested in photography. What I didn’t know before is that Adams’ books do not have any explanatory text with the photos. In one way this is interesting because it means that we have to create the text, fill in the narrative but in another way this robs these particular photographs of meaning.

One of his photographs of a family grouping has the father at one side grinning and holding an open bladed knife. This has been interpreted as menacing and dark but the reality of it is, as explained in the dvd, is that he had just bought the knife, was proud of it and wanted it to be part of the picture. Another picture has a man holding up his left and terribly ravaged arm. The cause of the destruction is unknown. However, here we learn that he is a snake handler and this is one of a few bites he has received; he is home after doctors told him he would probably die if he left the hospital, and his handling is a religious rite. He is also an old friend of Adams. It was an unlikely friendship but Adams pursued it to the point of becoming fascinated with the religion and handling snakes himself.

The documentary leaves you wanting to more about these people and how they live. What you do see is the granny pick up a guitar and sing. And this is great because she sings with no self consciousness; she is the vehicle for the song, there is no sense of interpretation just a passing on (though I could be reading that into it). And also when she and her husband talk and tell stories it is very much like the old gospel/blues call and answer.

What you really learn about here is Adams’ way of working, his subjects and his decades long deep freindship with them, their feelings about the photographs, and in general a lesser known way of life.


I appreciate and support the tabula rasa approach to images but in this case I wonder.

3 comments on “Lying to be true: Part two

  1. I also watched this video for a photography class of mine. It could be because I saw the video before I actually looked in the book, but I have always found that Shelby Lee Adams has amazing, very intimate and wonderfully lighted work. I like especially how he captures expressions, particulary the ones you see in his subjects’ eyes.

    There is so much information to be had from his photos, both from a technical view point and a interpretation point. 🙂

  2. I bet that even without the video you would have been moved. I went pictures first, and got the message.

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