The photography of Shelby Lee Adams has always been controversial. His posed portraits of Appalachian mountain families have been called exploitative, macabre, and Arbus-like reaffirmations of regional stereotypes, evoking hillbillies and images from <i>Deliverance</i>. That is why <i>The True Meaning of Pictures: Shelby Lee Adams' Appalachia</i> is such an interesting work.
Having grown up in the region where he works, Adams clearly has an intimate and respectful relationship with the people who live in his portraits. Canadian filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal follows him into the rural hills of eastern Kentucky and examines the way he orchestrates his subjects. Intercutting his photographs with interviews from both critics and supporters, Baichwal brings us into the world of Adams the image maker.
For those who think of film arts as transparent or "realistic," this enlightening inquiry clears up that misperception once and for all. Perhaps it's because some people are reluctant to see the stories behind photography or hold onto a nineteenth-century conception that they ignore the idea of representation. This lesson in the "meaning of pictures" goes far beyond specific questions about whether Adams is provocative or self-deluded.