Jan 14, 2006

"The True Meaning of Pictures"

Representation vs exploitation in Shelby Lee Adams' Appalachian Legacy and Lincoln Clarkes' Heroines.
About a month ago I caught a documentary on the photography of Shelby Lee Adams. The True Meaning of Pictures, directed by Canadian documentary film maker Jennifer Baichwal, explores issues of representation and interpretation in the work of a man who has made a career of photographing the rural population of Eastern Kentucky. Baichwal accompanied Adams to a number of the locations where his controversial photos where taken, and the documentary includes interviews with curators, artists, and the subjects of Adam's photos, as well as running commentary by the artist himself on his intention behind individual photographs.

The problem of exploitation vs representation is one that is frequently at issue in the work of photographers, particularly those whose work presents marginalized people. A local example is the controversy surrounding the photographic series Heroines by Lincoln Clarkes who in 1998 released a series of photographs he had taken of women in the Downtown East Side who were i.v. drug users and prostitutes. Some lauded his work for putting a human face on a problem that plagues this city. Others were overwhelmingly critical of Clarkes' work, accusing him of voyeurism and exploitation.

Several years ago I had a short debate with myself over whether to take a photo of a group of Hasidic Jewish boys riding the bumpercars at Coney Island. With their anachronistic hats, ringlets, and long jackets, heads thrown back in laughter, it might have been an amazing photograph. Might have been. I didn't take it. For one thing, some of these subjects were youngish children and I didn't have their parent's permission. More importantly, I didn't have their permission. Even if the photo had been great, I wouldn't have been able to do anything with it. Instead I stole this photo of a guy walking by Dante's Inferno - the fun-house ride. I didn't have the subject's permission to take his photograph, he wasn't participating in the portrait. To be fair, seriously, I was trying to get a shot of the fun-house exterior and this guy got in the way of my shot. As far as I was concerned at the time, that made him fair game from a "personal moral compass" perspective, although probably not from a legal one. Besides, he's an adult, and he isn't identifiable from the photograph. I guess if I had taken the photo of the bumpercar boys, that would be a pretty good example of exploitation. Or, to look at a better example, let's go back to Lincoln Clarkes' work.

Clarkes' argues that his Heroines series was meant to put a human face on a well publicized problem, and I guess in that respect it succeeds. Maybe the problem isn't so much with the success or failure of this work, but of its intent - Clarkes didn't take his inquiry far enough. He does succeed in putting a face on the problem of poor and exploited women, but he fails to convey soul, character, personality, or causation. The viewer doesn't learn any more about these women than the accidental tourist who takes a wrong turn on their walk from Gastown to Chinatown.

Does a photograph succeed if it needs several paragraphs to contextualize it? What's wrong with taking the proverbial "thousand words" a photo conveys, at face value? Some critics have argued that Shelby Lee Adam's photos are exploitative because his subjects are not visually literate enough to understand the way a gallery audience may interpret them. In the first photo I posted above of "Granny" smoking a pipe, the photo viewed by a northern middle class audience can be seen to confirm stereotypes of "poor southern white trash". Those of you who have seen an episode of Saturday Night Live in the past year or so and have seen the skit, "Appalachian Emergency Room" will be familiar with the cliche I'm talking about. It seems Appalachia is still a suitable subject for derision amongst the urban "politically correct" elite. Or to paraphrase one of the critics interviewed in Baichwal's documentary: to be poor in America is bad. To be poor and white in America is almost unforgivable.

What do you see when you look at this photo to the right? In-breeding? Polygamy? Poverty? A family?

The man in the center is the son of a man Adams has photographed for years. The blonde haired woman to the right is his wife. The developmentally disabled woman crouched down on the floor to his left is his sister. This family figures largely in "The True Meaning of Pictures"and it's clear this is a very loving family that has stuck together despite great economic hardships. Adams doesn't claim to be a documentarian. His photos are carefully staged using a full compliment of lights, a large format camera on a tripod and time spent in staging - a process in which his subjects are active participants.

One church lady interviewed in the documentary was harshly critical of Adams', saying that he shouldn't show residents living in such poverty - that it was shameful, and accused him of single-handedly perpetuating the myth of the backward poverty stricken mountain dweller. She wanted to see him photographing more of the pretty parts of the country - people in their Sunday best, posed in a freshly painted room. The question is, would this sanitized fiction bring dignity to the poor? Might it not simply mollify the gallery-going public? It's easier to look at clean happy poor people than dirty tired looking poor people.

Adams' subjects invite him into their homes. Theirs is a world he's been familiar with since childhood. If he's moved away from Eastern Kentucky, it's still "home". In the mid-1960's, a cantakerous old man shot and killed a Canadian journalist for taking photos of his run-down property without permission. So far, Adams has been invited back over a space of decades to photograph the same families over and over again. Maybe the problem isn't with Adams' photographs, but with media portrayals such as "Appalachian Emergency Room," which cause us to look at Adams' work through a lens colored by our own cultural bias, prejudice, and fear.

Finally, I think one of the issues that needs to be mentioned in the context of both Adams' and Clarkes' photographs is one of consent. Each of the subjects of these photographs presumably signed a release - unlike my Dante's Inferno model. Critics of Adams' photographs have argued that his subjects lack the visual literacy to understand the context in which their portraits will be viewed. The question I have regarding Clarkes' photographs, is whether his subjects were able to provide informed consent. I don't know. Maybe my question is insulting to the women who posed for his photographes.

It could be that the most "successful" photograph is the one that challenges the viewer to ask the most questions. Last January I wrote about Uta Barth. I had just fallen completely in love with her portraits of light and color - but these aren't "challenging" images. They still "work".

Despite this long-winded post, I haven't been working up to a grand conclusion. I'm not sure why Adams' photographs are okay with me, but Clarkes' trouble me. Maybe it's because the reality of life in Appalachia is so far removed from my own experience, but I think it might be because Adams' portraits are so intimate. Clarkes' subjects may be looking at the camera, but there's still something guarded in their expression. Maybe the same compositions would have a different implication if the photographer had been female.Certainly, if the camera where in the hands of these women, the implication of this work would be different.

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