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The True Meaning of Pictures: Shelby Lee Adams' Appalachia

Year: 2002
Language: English
Format: Digital Betacam (NTSC) Colour
Runtime: 75 min
Director: Jennifer Baichwal
Cinematographer: Nick de Pencier
Editor: David Wharnsby
Sound: Jane Tattersall
Production Company: Mercury Films Inc.

For more than thirty years, the controversial Shelby Lee Adams has been photographing the mountain people who live in the rural region of eastern Kentucky where he grew up. Many question his work and methods; critics declare that Adams’s black-and-white images exploit and betray the culture he claims to know and love so well by portraying Appalachia as one big horror show. Supporters, however, find his work exquisitely composed, finely detailed, full of deep tone and texture, unsentimental, affectionate and unquestionably memorable. Is Adams reaffirming regional stereotypes of incestuous, violent, drunken hillbillies? Or is he trying to be objective, challenging people to think, not to judge, but to experience in an intimate way?

Baichwal follows Adams on his working visits to the Childers family (whom he has known since 1976) and the Napiers (now infamous for their staged hog-killing photo); she is there, too, as he observes religious practices that involve snake handling and drinking poison. Through interviews, photos and Adams’s archival videos, we see how he orchestrates the theatrical quality of his images and come to understand how his attraction to what he calls environmental portraits comes from his identification with the suffering and pain of the human condition. His intent is not to idealize or romanticize the people he photographs – in his view, they accept themselves for who they are.

Director Jennifer Baichwal has crafted a complex, intimate and thoughtful portrait of an artist at work – and of his respectful relationship with the people who live behind the portraits. The True Meaning of Pictures: Shelby Lee Adams' Appalachia had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival®, was greeted enthusiastically by critics upon its international release on the art-house circuit and won the Genie Award for Best Arts Documentary.

By: Stacey Donen

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