David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Documenting Community
by David Bacon

photographs by Shelby Lee Adams
University Press of Mississippi
Jackson, Mississippi
Paperbound, 132 pages, 80 images, $30.00

Documentary photographers and photojournalists are cursed in many ways by the demands of their genre and profession. To maintain their vision and integrity, many photographers struggle for continuity by using new situations as a means for reinterpreting and exploring the same issues.

Another part of the body of documentary photography establishes a photographic relationship with particular communities or movements over time. The link between the photographer and the people of the photographs becomes an integral part of the work itself. It is a source of richness, depth, and understanding because of the commitment of the photographer to the people involved, and their identifiable point of view.

This is why Appalachian Legacy, the second book of photographs by Shelby Lee Adams, is such a remarkable book -- not a photographic project, but a section of a life's work.

Adams is a product of the community he documents -- the community of the hill people of eastern Kentucky -- Appalachia. He is even reluctant to call his book or his work documentary photography at all. "After twenty-five years, my Appalachian work is still a matter of self-expression, of searching to find who I am and where I come from," he explains. "The closer I come to knowing my subjects, the closer I come to knowing myself."

Yet, Adams is also documenting a people and a community disappearing under the impact of modern life -- mass-produced, consumerist culture. He is showing the people beneath the stereotype of Appalachia, the image of rude, uncouth "white trash," with no culture or traditions worthy of respect.

Adams was born in Hazard, Kentucky, into a family which moved around the country with his father's change in jobs. They came back to the hill country part of every year, where he was ostracized by his teachers and some classmates for coming from the "rude" hill culture. Perhaps that was the original source of the tension which has produced Adams' work -- being part of the community of the hills and hollers, but also part of the larger world beyond.

Photography became a means for him to work through his own personal dilemma. Every year, Adams goes back to spend time in Kentucky. He visits relatives and friends, and through them meets other people in the hills. When he goes to photograph them, the photography becomes an occasion, discussed with his subjects, and part of an experience which includes eating, drinking, and getting to know new people, or catching up on the lives of old friends and acquaintances.

As a result, the book contains series of photographs made over the course of years. Tammy is one of those. She appears as a young girl at first, in 1977, looking into the camera with the cool curiosity of a seven-year old. Ten years later, an image shows her as an angry young woman, a cross tattooed on her wrist, suspicious of the viewers beyond the lens, yet patient and still enough to make a luminous icon of adolescence. A final portrait in 1986 shows a young woman sitting on a couch, her hands together in her lap in an image of uncertainty and even self-consciousness.

All Adams' images are portraits. There are no action shots, no tricks of angles or the mobility of a 35mm camera. The whole atmosphere is formal, and what it shows of the community comes through the faces of the individuals, as well as the background environment.

A series, Brice and Crow, starts with a simple portrait image of Brice in 1974, in a white shirt, grimacing for the camera in front of a black background. The picture gets filled in more with Brice with Prince Albert Cans, taken in 1982. This is a classic Adams environmental portrait, in which Brice stands in front of a log cabin, posing for the camera with his hands behind his back. The log wall, with cans of Prince Albert tobacco flattened out and nailed over the joints between the logs, is as much part of the portrait as Brice himself is. Then, in one of the book's most moving and emotional photographs -- Crow with Tomato Cans, from 1994 -- Crow, Brice's brother, sits on a porch under a railing, behind an old chair with tomato cans on the seat. But here, despite the nearness and size of the chair and cans, it's clearly Crow who's the subject, as he leans a head against a hand, with his stomach protruding under the wooden rail.

As with each series, a text account by Adams describes his relationship with the two men, dating from his own childhood.

"I grew up watching out the windows as members of the [Caudill] family walked by our house on their way to the Frazier store or all the way into town," Adams writes. "The men wore various shades of blue denim overalls and railroad caps of different colors. They chewed tobacco on one side of their jaws or the other, and they would spit juice on the dirt road as they walked by. As a little boy, I would run out and stare at the tobacco juice in the dirt as it beaded up, popped, and disapperared into the earth; sometimes I would poke at it with a stick, wondering what the stuff was. In the evenings, as the crickets began to sing, I would see them walking back toward the head of the hollow, their faces and clothes wet with sweat, big burlap sacks full of groceries and supplies slung across their backs. If they were lucky, a farmer might pick them up and let them ride in the back of his pickup truck, at least part of the way home."

The whole book is as much about Adams' relationship to the community as it is about the people themselves. On his visits he takes polaroids and gives them to his subjects and their children. When he returns the following year, he brings prints, and his subjects can discuss with him how he's chosen to create the images.

He photographs during a certain part of the year, and then goes back to Massachusetts and creates the prints during the other part.

"Many people think that photography is quick, but my way of working is painstakingly slow," he explains. "This cyclical, year-round way of working is very important."

He's as good at telling the stories of peoples' lives as he is at creating the images. Tammy's photographs are not just a record of what she looked like as she grew up, but contain the account of what happened to her life. Another recurring subject is Kizzie. Adams learns her full story -- that she was shot and blinded by her cousin in a shootout with deputies -- only over years of taking her photograph. The photographs aren't illustrations of Kizzie's story -- the story is an amplification of the photographs.

Adams works with lots of equipment -- view camera, lights, cables -- which create a formal atmosphere. The Woodworker is as informal and angle-driven as these images get, with Cecil's face looking past his tools. But it's still very posed and conscious. Nevertheless, the equipment doesn't intrude. One isn't constantly aware of the photographer performing his tricks, using technical means to get results.

Artificial light separates the subjects from the background, often creating a figure which almost glows against the darkness -- The Boys at Tipmost, or The Newsome Children. Sometimes there are blurred figures in the background, as in Roy with Sister and New Bride, and often the figures are framed by a door, a window, or even a hole in a piece of cardboard. Sometimes the lighting is a little stagey -- Burchal and Family, taken in 1994, has light coming from so many different angles, lighting up elements at such a distance from each other, that it's a distraction.

But almost always, the light gives the images a very natural feeling. In Cecil with Seeds, Gourd and Bucket, the light picks his head out, but the objects behind and above him are as much the subject of the portrait as the face. It's not an accident, or even the choice of the photographer. Adams recalls he asked Cecil "to let me photograph him with objects that were important to him, something he would want to have a record of. ... Cecil explained that these items had been placed on the porch in the 1930s by his mother after his parents had planted their first gardens on this property. ÔThis was my daddy's first lunchin' pail he took to work with him. This gourd was from their first garden, and these seeds my mother hung here from her first flower garden... This is the best place I can think of that I'd want my picture taken at.'"

The detail conveys a richness of community, as the Hoes and Hammers on Shelby's Porch (again, where the objects overwhelm the person in the background), or the three Girls at Tipmost, in their good dresses and clothes (one with her hair up, wearing earrings). Two of them wear no shoes, and one her good sneakers and socks.

Adams says his purpose is not to depict poverty or create a social document. He is suspicious of the idea of having a larger social agenda involving an overt effort to change conditions, because he believes that it implies that people are ashamed of their lives. He sees it as a concession to the stereotype view of the outside world, which looks down on this community and sees only poverty.

There's a certain truth in Adams' reaction. In the years following the 1960s, for leftwing people in this country, Appalachia became an icon of white poverty. It was not always intended as a putdown, but a reaction to another stereotype -- that poverty was a problem of Black people, or Latinos or other communities of color. The stereotype of Appalachia became a shorthand for saying that poverty wasn't just a problem for people of color -- that it affected white people too.

But Adams sees the stereotype as too simple, and one demeaning to the community of the hill country, where people often don't think a change in their situation is necessary or desirable, and want to preserve a way of life they value for its human content. They think of themselves in more than a one-dimensional way -- as more than just poor people -- but as members of a community with pride and self-respect.

"The photographs do not constitute a documentary overview of a deprived, isolated culture, but represent a personal, subjective view of the spirit of a people," Adams says.

Yet it is, in the end, deeply political work. Adams is depicting a community which he himself acknowledges is on the brink of disappearing.

"Most of the younger people have abandoned the traditional Appalachian values and embraced the media culture," he laments, "like those in the rest of the country; many are ashamed of the ways of their grandparents and parents. Eighteen-year-olds, having seen their parents worn out from working too much and ending up on welfare, don't want to work at all. There are few jobs for them anyway; the land has been used up, the coal mines closed, and Wal-Mart and McDonald's can only hire so many. The older Appalachia is a world that's almost gone."

Even the last photograph in his series on Brice and Crow is disturbing because the environment is beginning to look like that which Adams finds problematic. The two subjects of Brice and Crow at Trailer are very different from the previous portraits in the series -- they look as though the world has caught up with them. Orderly rows of plants fill the background, Brice and Crow are posed next to their modern house trailer, dressed in good clothes. Brice even has running shoes on.

But Adams himself is a as much a product of the change in culture and environment as he is the product of the old Appalachian culture which came before.

Maybe that is a source of hope for the future.

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-1999

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