Sunday, February 18, 2007

Berthie viewing book Appalachian Portraits for the first time in 1993 with son Joe and Terry Riddle, a neighbor.

In the summer of 1992, I visited Berthie to ask her to sign a model release giving me permission to use her picture in my first book Appalachian Portraits. Even though for years she had enjoyed my photographs and had them displayed in her home, she told me that signing papers was not good, and that it must be a bad book I was doing. I learned from members of the community that she was illiterate and was probably afraid because she had once signed a crooked deed and lost some land to a mining company.

I returned with a local minister known to the family; he read my request, and she reluctantly signed. When the book came out, Berthie was still convinced it would be no good. As she opened the book and looked through it for the first time, I photographed her and her family. She laughed and studied each picture at length. She loved seeing her husband's pictures and talked about what a good time we all had when we made The Hog Killing. She told me she would keep this book for as long as she lived, together with the other good book she had, the Bible. She keeps personal photos and treasures locked in a trunk at the foot of her bed "so the boy's won't get 'em and go sell 'em, she said.

Published in LensWork Quarterly, Portland, #27, Jan. 2000

Jamie and Nay Bug,'08
Nay Bug is first cousin to the Napier's and now living in Beehive
with husband Jamie Adams.

Nay Bug and Jamie,'08

Shelby photographing Nay Bug and Jamie.
Photographer P. Paletti

Nay Bug, '09

Darrel and Arch,'07

The Napier's Living Room, '89

The Hog Killing, '90

The Film - Introduction 

               Now at age 68, I feel it important to write about some of my experiences making The True Meaning of Pictures a documentary production based on my life, culture and photography. Many students and faculty tell me they study and write about my work using this film as definitive. For that reason and others to be mentioned I feel it necessary to explain some of my experiences.

           The film was selectively edited to reflect the filmmaker's point of view, though I was originally told the project would be a collaboration. It was constructed from a variety of sources that included my personal videos and still photography, the filmmaker's material made in Kentucky during their month’s stay, as well as interviews and scenic views which they did independently at varied locations. Additionally, the filmmakers licensed and used a famous Hollywood movie segment from the movie Deliverance.

            It was my commitment to give, share and try to broaden appreciation for my culture and my life’s work. My goal was to deepen empathy and compassion for my subjects and their photographs, challenging persistent outside assumptions and to provide an inside perspective that would help bring about more understanding for my people's humanity, the culture and my photography.  

          Several discrepancies occur. In the hog killing sequence, the ritual and the intent of the photograph is not explained. The series of photographs that the Childers family helped make were separated and used to convey different impressions than the family or I intended. The unique serpent handling section had an inappropriate introduction, when other more informative interviews were available. Throughout, many of the photographer’s black and white images were cropped and shown out of sequence. This film purports to represent my life’s work, but it does not; an explanation is necessary for the historical record.

Part I - The Hog Killing

           Long before the film was ever an idea, in the spring of 1990 when preparing for making "The Hog Killing" photo, I had invited two students to travel with me from Salem, Mass. to Kentucky to document the event with the Napier and Riddle families. I had previously purchased a hog for $150.00. Both families and I had discussed and agreed beforehand to making the photo  in the traditional manner which all participants had experienced. 

              It is important to work with subjects who have lived and practiced their cultures rituals personally. An experienced participant can intuitively contribute to a photo collaboration. They live their culture, not imitating or acting as a stereotype. To be from an area is not enough, to have actually lived the life is more substantial and carries more weight.

               I try and photograph with people who know themselves. Seeking out those living an authentic life is essential for my photography. My subjects must be agreeable to being photographed and participate in any photo sessions. This way false or naive facades are not projected, no one is acting a part. All are comfortable, genuine and understanding of each other.

             Some have written, who know little about this culture, its people or myself, stating that I coerced my subjects into making this photography by offering food. I make every effort to not compromise my subjects, but encourage their free will. If families receive some food and photographs for their efforts, that much the better. Giving copies of photographs and giving food is to me not “coercive”, but an exchange of gifts among Appalachian friends and this is not unusual, but more respectful and supportive. 

            After a visit and photo session from which I leave some photos, doing for folks as I can, I am often ask to share a meal with the family, sometimes I'm also given a bag of potatoes, or green onions, maybe a piece of chocolate cake or a bag of green beans out of my friends garden, something from whatever is in season or on hand. It is our custom, such an exchange, what I have always done. Yet, in our mountains we have a history of the media coming in and photographing without understanding the culture and insulting it's people. In this film I was never ask or given an opportunity to explain our custom of exchange around the hog killing ritual.

            In 1990, as prearranged, after the photo was made the meats were divided between the two families providing them with food for approximately three months. Everyone was agreeable with this arrangement, which also followed the traditional mountain community ways of our forefathers and how they helped each other survive. A copy of the photograph and a VCR video recording of the event were given to all participants later. The book this photo was first published in Appalachian Portraits 1993, by The University Press of Mississippi was later also distributed to all participants. Our exchange and relationships continue. 

           The mountaineer takes great pride in his independence. If he ever feels he is being compromised, he will not have anything to do with you. If he has to hunt and eat squirrel or raccoon, he does so without sacrificing his pride. This independent character trait is what draws me to these people. That too is what I am photographing and have been doing for now 40 years.

             To tell another’s story well, we need to be in tune with, have a rapport, feel togetherness, have the ability to put ones self in the shoes of another; to empathize. Those among us who are illiterate or living by their natural instincts do not hold a time frame to define their rituals, memories and myths, because they are always in flux, living without calendars or retirement plans. Here a different value system exist for some. For them the photograph, The Hog Killing, represents more, a fixed memory reoccurring, what we call an archetype or a recurring pattern of behavior, infinitely connecting and affirming—we all really are here together in a sharing state. Dividing food with another is about establishing positive relationships and basically supporting others, a Thanksgiving Day of sorts. This is universal        

The hog killing video was made to record a memorable cultural event with my Appalachian friends and to share my background and help instruct my students. I was then head of the photo program at Salem State College. I presented this video to students to illustrate how a formal group composition is put together emphasizing the strength of the triangular form, how to communicate with people encouraging them to relax and relate to each other, and technically to see how blending lighting illuminates the subjects, even in daylight. I felt this video segment worked on many levels, holding the students attention and I repeatedly showed it while teaching at Salem, but always discussing the cultural content with my students.

            Further, to record such events with the people who live this ritual is significant, because this custom is iconic in its presentation, historic and disappearing. This event in 1990 may have been one of the last opportunities to record a hog killing with authentic participants who have lived this kind of lifecycle. Since this video segment from my archive was not a finished or produced project, the hog killing part, like other sections, needed specific narration, which I was not ask to provide. 

I was disappointed the filmmaker did not allow the coordination or collaboration I understood would occur. My ability to sequence, edit and participate in decision-making was denied and ignored to the end. This film is the filmmakers take on my work, using me, my work and people; not a collaborative documentary about my work, as originally purposed to me to get my corporation. I did not see the “final” version until it was to be released to the public and I was shocked, angered and shamed. This was a breach of our understanding. I complained before and after the premier but to no avail-the lesson learned here is to make sure to maintain control in a written agreement and don’t trust the promises of others or, alternatively, trust but still have an effective remedy for a breach of an important promise. 

             My voice and vision have been clearly portrayed in most projects, my permanent archive, web sites, published interviews, four books to date and numerous exhibition projects. Publishers and editors have generally welcomed my input and feedback.

            Unfortunately, popular as this film has been, this film emphasizes the filmmaker’s precise assembly and usage of my work with her preferred edits and sometimes sensationalized and controversy-generating views of my friends, subjects, culture and photography. 

James and Arch Napier viewing Polaroids with Shelby, 2005

           By the year 2001 I had resigned from my teaching position and I did not recall if the 1990 hog killing footage was even in my video library, loaned to the filmmakers. When asked by the filmmakers to send all my video footage to them, I trusted them and submitted my materials. One-year went by without my seeing anything. The year before, the filmmakers and I had spent a month working in Kentucky on this project. I was led to believe then, that the new material we had filmed together in 2002 was to encompass the basic film. I was wrong. Much of the video used for the film came from my older archives made during the 1980’s and 90’s and was unedited, not material we had discussed or worked with together.

         Today we are suspicious of "Truth," because we recognize that what is called truth is often only a tool in the hands of those in power [the media], and is often determined by their beliefs and tailored to their requirements.
Lionel Corbett

Part ll - The Childers

Hettie with Children, 1977

         There was no collaboration in editing any segments of the film. I was simply mailed a copy of the final production a few days before the film's premier in Toronto. When I asked for changes, I was denied. This was inconsistent with our agreement, and promises made to me.

         The Childers family lived near where I had grown up in Eastern Kentucky. The father’s name was Burley, he had served as an airplane mechanic during the Korean War. Hettie, his wife, was the mother of eight children. The unique bond within this family was that they had three handicapped children that the rest of the family devoted themselves to caring for.

                The three special children, Homer, Selina and James were mentally and physically impaired. I met them in 1976 and we became closely connected right away. The impaired children were so excited when photographing, I began letting them pose themselves and make their own photographs. When doing so, I improvised moving the camera and lighting equipment as the children photographed themselves and their family, guided by making and viewing Polaroids instantly. It was our goal to share these sensitive photos witnessing the family's love and unity and manner of expressing themselves together, we wanted to open viewers and neighbor's hearts to accept and support these impaired children.

          In the film I felt this family's exceptional openness to being photographed worthy of a distinct introduction and explanation. Unfortunately, the still images forming a triptych [submitted separately with text] were separated and used as title and menu slides, misrepresenting the Childers photos intent and using out of context. All this was hurtful and more importantly altered how viewers would experience our photographs. I was shipped a copy of the film only when completed. I attended the premier of the film in Toronto hoping if I did we could make some changes later. My request to change the Children's photos was ignored.

              Our photographic approach sometimes used wide-angle lenses on a view camera providing a 3-foot cable release so the children could easily make pictures. The camera position was also usually set 3 feet off the floor sitting on a tripod. The children made 4x5 Polaroids together to immediately view and express themselves. I developed the Polaroids while they viewed each Polaroid and we made more pictures. The photographing was easy and playful, creating a unique collaboration.

          The mother felt some neighbors viewed her children in harsh discerning ways, some cruelly judging and mocking. She felt the more photos we made to show, the better for her children. We made pictures over the years, reflecting back both emotional and well though out images. I was an only child and my parents went through a terrible divorce with many secrets and much deception, the openness of the Childers regarding their children and their situation in life was comforting for me and healthy, helping me to heal from some of my own family struggles. This work was personal to me and the Childers.

          Why do some distance themselves from others different from themselves? Psychologically more is going on than meets the eye. Is it fear, prejudice or something else that pulls some back? Why do so many experience photographs of the impaired with such intolerance? The film used some of my photos of the Childers as title and menu slides.

             The special children’s photos, if presented as submitted, would have affected the audience in a diversity of ways. From my experimenting as a college photo teacher, I had investigated with my students varied responses. For some viewers compassionate feelings arose, building relatedness. For others a self-internalizing engagement might arise where the viewer reflects upon their personal ambivalent reactions, eventually opening some to experience new possibilities and understandings and to hopefully empathize with these children as their fellow human beings. Still others held onto more distancing responses.

             Can we visually and morally arouse and awaken society, by depicting different portrayals and representations of the world's dependent children? Can we illustrate and communicate their sensitivities, embracing their open innocence that is always reaching out to us? Can those that are impaired create uninhibited and meaningful representations themselves that we can respond to? 

           Could such images give us pause to think more deeply about why we reject others different from ourselves? The Childers children's picture making evolved enthusiastically with unexpected results; they made pictures that looked engaged, primal and primitive. Is this visual uninhibited direction a path to help us overcome our sense of predjuice and isolation from each other? For me and others, it has been.  We felt these children's self-portraits and family photos were representative of their visual perceptions and more. This is of value, distinct and raw as it may be for some to sympathetically experience. The film did not help us here.

            Much more work needs to be done beyond just documenting appearances or writing descriptions. To accept and integrate all parts of our humanity, not rejecting any is what these photos are about to me. One of my ideas submitted was to have someone read Jungian alchemical metaphors [as an example] while the photographs would be shown fading in and out on the screen. Jung’s writings and others can arouse an audience to think more freely, hopefully engaging and embracing humanity. It is essential to think of these special ones as full of life. Working with their photographs more creatively and psychologically with emotional sensitivity would lead to a broader understanding. Yet, the photographs were placed in the film in ways that were inappropriate and inconsistent with their intent, and again I was not given the opportunity to provide input in a collaborative process that we had agreed upon.

               The parents and I felt these images revealed primal feelings and emotions, amazed that the children exposed these pictures themselves, acknowledging each other. Focusing the camera wasn't necessarily as critical when using wide-angle lenses. The children often were just having a good time, with any children. In fact, neighbor children did come over to play and take pictures with us. Some of the pictures may at first look grim to the outsider, but when one becomes more engaged you can discover and see the love, happiness and contentment.

               The children were inspiring. With these photos we were hoping to open new territories of human expression and representation, tearing down old taboos, breaking down stagnant institutional and conservative visual boundaries... seeing differently. It is imperative that we recognize and acknowledge our own lack of connection extending over the centuries, ignoring those impaired and handicapped.

               Much of society is prepositioned to overlook and dismiss those visually rejected and those impaired. To really change society, we need to change within ourselves first, practice more patience and see another’s difficulties as our own. The filmmakers chose to separate and reformat the children's photos. This kind of modification reflects societie's history of ignoring and complacency, creating banal and trivial title pictures, misrepresenting what the parents and I were so carefully trying to convey, a greater acceptance of those impaired. 

              The parents and I always encouraged the children's spontaneity; this brought forward their unique innocence and openness apparent in their pictures. My uncle, "Doc Adams" was the Childers family physician, defender and friend. We often talked about how the three children might actually see and view the world, perhaps unmeasurable, however they seemed always enthusiastic. The Childers were neighbors to many of my relatives as I was growing up. Though I did not meet them until I was 26 years old, we knew each other for more than 25 years before the film was made. We shared our lives together and community relationships which paved the way for making this family's uniquely spirited photos. A quote from the mother:

“God give me my children and

He give them to me for a reason. I don’t feel ashamed . . .
I’m proud of ‘em. I’m proud God let me keep my
Young’uns long as he has, because I know I can’t keep ‘em forever.”

—Hettie Childers


It has always been my approach to see humanity openly,
more in a state of awe or wonder, accepting,
 Accepting without labeling or judging.

As an artist portraying our fragile mortality, 
acknowledging whatever humanity is before us,
without categorizing.
This has always been my pursuit. 

                Part of our objective with photographing the children is to create an "active awareness." We believe becoming familiar with these conditions and others like them will assist humanity in overcoming prejudgments and immediate distancing. With this family fully engaged, we were trying to face and involve society with some of the anxieties created against this more delicate part of humanity. 

                Many of those impaired in society want to help us overcome our distress and uncomfortable feelings in their presence. They would like us to enjoy their photographs as families do. Maligned and denigrated, the Childers simply wanted acceptance. We strive together. With compassion, the Childers and I were and still are intent on finding reception in a world resisting. I have always said repeating stereotyping hearsay only stigmatizes people and cultures. After the film was released the filmmaker publicly posted and discussed local hearsay and rumors from Kentucky about the Childers, when I specifically asked her not to. 

             Familiarity leads to acceptanceovercoming discomfort by association, creating greater compassion and kindness. The Childers family had suffered, and it has always been my commitment to try and help bring them some kind of positive voice and credibility; for Hettie [the mother], Homer, Selina and James and others like them. Why can’t we all embrace our diversity without labeling or creating controversy? When we start labeling another, whether it be someone black or white, living in poverty, a rape victim or a cancer patient, that label creates internal mental images and categories oftentimes limiting our acknowledgements and how we think of another. We might do better enduring and appreciating each other for whoever we are without labeling or visually misrepresenting.

Part of my triptych used in film out of context.

           Is it not one’s socio-political status in life that grants one's rated visibility as something more important or less significant? In portraiture and human representation, faced with the inconsistency or incompleteness of a person’s form, some feel entitled to say dispassionately, that face is ugly and unimportant, especially when one comes from poverty. If given a chance, cannot any form of humanity be elevated, redeemed and transformed by a faithful artistic portrayal?

Part III - The Serpent Handling Religion  

                 Religion is always a difficult area to represent, as the impassioned parts are often invisible. The unique religious beliefs of the Holiness Serpent Handlers; their deep faith and rites are visible, but symbolic needing explanation. Their rituals were seen but not clearly introduced or explained. Why have an introductory segment of a man in work clothes, wearing a dirty tee shirt with his potbelly sticking out with his face showing one disparaged eye? Why select this film clip to introduce a seriously practiced religion to a new audience? There were several other more communicative religious segments available. Introductory impressions are important.

          This religion has often been misunderstood and maligned by the media. This film section is like many mainstream media representations, sensationalizing the people's rituals, commitments and values. What appears as chaos is actually the spontaneous transference of energy [they believe spiritual and soulful] to the initiated participants. As a participant myself, I understand this religion somewhat and could have helped in explaining the making of this section of film. Many people have never experienced full spontaneity in religion or otherwise, somewhat as in creating an original painting, making jazz music, performing modern dance, practicing creative writing or even experiencing other country revivals. With some simple narration in the film, the viewer could have been introduced to a deeper understanding that is more universal.

            See my blog, People and AnimalsThe Holiness Religion [in the mid-section of my People and Animals blog]. For interpretations, descriptions and photos portraying practicing members who I know well, please review this site. This religious section contains significant material, needing to be explained more fully, but I was not granted the opportunity to review and provide input----as I was promised. 

Part IV - The Film and Photographs

                My intent was to contribute to the documentary tradition by showing that long-term relationships make strong unions and these relationships flex, like family and bear our human vulnerability. My years of building personal bonds and ties with my holler people made this film possible. It’s comforting to know my Kentucky people are generous and forgiving of my errors, where I believed the promises of the filmmaker on input and editing.

                Martha Joseph, a subject of over 30 years, speaks about my photography. “Pictures mean a whole lot, when you can see them and not the people; especially the ones gone. They bring back a lot of memories, but they help my feelin’s. They make me feel real good. Pictures brings back more life in my memory when I was growin’ up and they make me feel better. You photographed my Dad before he died. Mother really liked you 'fore she died; brothers Richmond and Charlie, they died. Your pictures remind me of my life, even before I knowed you. When our house burnet’ down last year and you give us another book with our pictures in it, Lord that’s the world of memories in that." —Martha Joseph.

                The Follow Up Field Visit: After the filming was completed,  the filmmaker and I returned again to KY to show each family their parts, a step I felt was a courtesy and respectful to the people. These follow-up visits secured model releases and  were important to maintaining good communications with our subjects. I've witnessed other photography projects done in Appalachia where the subjects felt manipulated. Our families were shown segments of video from their summer interviews, but most of these edits it turned out were not a part of the final presentation. 

               I found out a large part of The True Meaning of Pictures budget was used to secure usage rights for a Hollywood production film clip from the controversial movie Deliverance, which was edited to emphasize negative cultural associations.  After discovering this, other disappointments became apparent.

              After asking several times, I finally received a copy of the film only 3 days before my booked flight to Toronto to attend the premier. After first reviewing at home, I cancelled my plane tickets. I was told it was too late to change anything in the film. I then unfortunately received a call from my then friend Stephen Bulger who was also at that time my gallery rep. in Toronto, and was friend to both the filmmakers and me. He alone persuaded me to rebook my air tickets and attend the premier. The filmmakers paid for my new tickets, knowing some of my distress and disappointments. In conflict and ambivalence, I reluctantly attended the films premiere, still hopeful for some changes. My association and friendship with Stephen Bulger and the filmmakers soon ended.  

              I was told nothing could be changed, the time line was complete, and the budget was depleted. The filmmakers said, "After all it was only a documentary." The betrayal and shame I felt then was paralyzing. Today the film is still shown, and some academics, writers and critics refer to this film as authoritative. Much is edited  in a sensationalized manner.   

                  During my year of waiting I listed and shipped 150 exhibition still photographs to be considered, including some rare vintage prints from the 1980's that were unique, but they were not used in the final production. This was a disappointment. The German photo papers made by Agfa was the finest warm tone enlargement paper made and now no longer available. When the photos were returned, some were irreplaceably damaged, no insurance coverage was available. I was eventually given a fraction of the replacement value of some of the damaged prints. Another example of how the work was not respected.

           Thinking back, I enthusiastically provided all materials and interviews. I was told that the program would represent my black and white photography, as I intended. Yet, most photographs were cropped, the timing of air time, zooming and panned effects were not to my liking. The filmmakers and I had previously reviewed several still photographers' programs and how their photographs were presented and reproduced, both good and bad. I was never granted the opportunity, consulted or asked to approve how any of my photographs were edited, sequenced together or represented, even though we previously agreed I would have such involvement.

                 This program for the most part overstates differences and sensationalizes without clear explanation or reason. It creates controversy, where I was seeking a film for my subjects voices's to be heard, offering their explanations, insights and acceptance of themselves, different from the mainstream. Different because they open their hearts, speak and live a life in trust with others. After all we did film many interviews with my friends in Kentucky that were never used.

                  The film did not have my involvement after all materials were collected, certainly not in the editing process and rest assuredly this project was not a collaboration. The filmmaker used my materials in ways that hurt me and some subjects. It caused me to have to defend myself against allegations that I was sensationalizing. I regret that I attended the premier showing of the film in Toronto, I attended hoping changes could still be made and they never were.       

Shelby Lee Adams—March 2019

An Insiders Perspective - From 2007 interview, "Mountain Voices."

               "An outsider already has an idea of what they think about me before they meet me or hear me speak. They see your pictures different than I do to. You look at "The Hog Killing, '90," picture, that makes me think, my memories come back, I could feel the cold mornings from my childhood, in the dark and having the water on the fire boilin' before daylight, we killed the hog, the neighbors come over and what a time we had, we was scrappin', workin', it was an event, we made cracklin's, history, that's what it is. These pictures are life. That's fantastic; no one had to tell me that. That meat from your makin' that photo fed those families for three months, we know that, ain't no stagin' to that, that's good as we see it. You don't try and paint no picture that's untrue. There's a life that's goin', but I can still look at 'em and still recall it in your pictures. We have culture, that's what that picture is about and that means everything."

Hobert White, Eagle's Nest, KY

Additional Interview on Hog Killing:

Huff Interview 2010.


In 2016 I commissioned a video to be made using my photography edited in a manner under my direction.
Link Below

Hort Collins, Photographs and Mountain Music


"Garry Winogrand: All Things Are Photographable"

A new film completed in 2018, excellent representation of the photographer and the photographer's work.


The Napier Family

The Napier Family, '89

The Fly Swat, '92

The Napier's with Dog's, '88

Whilst part of what we perceive comes through our senses from the object before us, another part [and it may be the larger part] always comes out of our own minds.

William James

The Napier Brothers with Puppies, '92

“The More we neglect those on the periphery of society, the more we invite evil into our lives. The greater our neglect, the greater the chance for evil rebounding upon us.”

Cormac McCarthy
The Child of God

“The portraits that demonstrate the ‘affect’ of lives lived in a state of repression, oppression and trauma mirror through to the viewer identity of his own personal ‘affects,’ something many viewer's may unconsciously deny or not wish to acknowledge within themselves.”

Shelby Lee Adams

Jerry, '04

Joe at Mother's Funeral, '98

Mary, '89

Mary on Bed, '90

Berthie at Mary's [daughter] Funeral, '94

James at Sisters Funeral, '94

Jerry at Brother James Funeral, June '09

Examples of 4x5 Polaroids made to share with family before exposing film and for photographer to confirm technical concerns. 

James and I have been friends since the mid-1980's.
He is sorely missed by his family and many friends.
James was a man who would give you whatever he had, with a heart of gold.

James quote - "I Love This."

Jerry at Brother James Funeral, June '09

Last photo of James, October 2008

Last Photo Session with James, October, 2008
Photographer - Mia Baxter

Berthie, '88

"Had sixteen children in my family-you wouldn't believe that, would you! Eight dead and eight livin'! Lord, they drank and get out and get killed, and everything. You know, you can't put sense on 'em. But when they was small, they mind me good, till they got to be twenty-two or twenty-three. Now, Lord have mercy!"

Berthie Napier, Beehive, Kentucky '88

Berthie on Bed, '96

Berthie with Pipe & John, '92

Berthie being photographed 1987

Dan Napier's Funeral, '91

John and Arch '91

105 Degree's at The Napier's, '94

James, '03

All photographs and text copyrighted - © 1988-12 Shelby Lee Adams, legal action will be taken to represent the photographer, the work taken out of context, subjects and integrity of all photographic and written works, including additional photographers published and authors quoted. Permissions - send e mail request with project descriptions.


The Napier's Living Room, 1989 In the early '80's I was taken to visit the Napier family by a local preacher and friend Wayne Riddle from Leatherwood. I was advised not to drive my car, as the roads were rough. We loaded my equipment into the back of my friend's pickup truck and drove into the head of the holler called Beehive. Leaving the main road we're driving up a single lane dirt road that went through the creek three times with deep washed out gullies. Underbrush and tree limbs scrapped the sides of Wayne's truck as we drove. Suddenly, we were in an open valley populated with several small houses, smoke ambling out of the chimneys, chickens everywhere, a white mule in a barnyard and hound dogs came running and barking, their barks echoing through the valley before disappearing.

Getting out of the truck, this place felt like being taken back in time. Electric was minimally wired from a black 1/2 inch rubber coated cord that was propped up by wood planks with crooked nails on end. The well was hand dug, with a wooden box over it; a hemp rope and metal pulley were attached to draw crystal clear buckets of water. Each house appeared pieced together with wood scraps; cardboard and rusty tin roofing materials. The smoke smelled of fresh pinewood and cedar. This seemingly time warped community was more like visiting an early American pioneer life reenactment village, but it was not.

Meeting John and Berthie Napier was easy, they were friendly, John's laugh was fastidious and Berthie smiling, shy, pipe in mouth, head rag on, they were openly glad to have company. When my friend Wayne introduced me as a photographer, John told me about a photographer he remembered, who used to travel by horseback. When John saw my view camera and tripod he nodded, and said, "same thing". Berthie swept the dirt yard with a broom intermittently, shooing the chickens and diddles away, it seemed as a habit of housework. The Napier's sons wandered over to their parents home, one at a time, from their homes, and said hello, shook hands, stood around and talked.

Lewis Hine, Miner's family, Scott's Run, West Virginia, '36

When leaving after my first visit, my head was spinning. I had never met a family that lived in such a manner. Their world was of the pure old Appalachian spirit, I had only witnessed this as a child. They had somehow survived without adapting to modern ways. That summer, I had a few more visits but always relying on someone taking me by truck. I was in my mid thirties then and felt this family was one of the most important I'd met. I went back to Massachusetts and began researching four-wheel drive vehicles and by the summer of '88 I had purchased a new Nissan Pathfinder, if for no other reason than to visit the Napier's.

This family represented the true spirit from which many mountain people came. They had not been photographed by the media or affected by modern ways, and they were open to me. The Napier's represented authentically the old mountain culture, I remembered from childhood. If any flaw existed it was the incongruity in time of the making of these photographs. Their life style appeared to be from a century ago, except for small details like the logos on caps reading "Camel Joe" or "Michael Jackson". My knowledge of the history of photography, the FSA period, the War On Poverty, childhood experiences and knowing Appalachian stereotypes would inform this work and help portray us more honestly.

Walker Evans, A Miner's Home, West Virginia, 1935

One of the first Napier environments that interested me had a complex history, both personal and historically. The use of newsprint and cardboard as wallpaper on the inside of modest homes became iconic in the photographic work of Lewis Hines, long before the FSA depression era photographs were made. Later Walker Evans, Margaret Bourke-White, Russell Lee and even writers like James Agee; all used this background to inform their work. Evans was the first to see and use this material in an aesthetic manner. This influenced the sixties, Andy Warhol's generation and more contemporary art work today for example, Zwelethu Mthethwa. Here it was in Beehive, Kentucky, authentically used newspaper wall paper in the Napier's living room in 1989. I had looked for but never found this in any home before or ever since.

Remembering as a child in the late '50's when I was in 2nd grade through 6th grade, I visited many homes with my mother while she was distributing annually my used school clothes to needy families in our community. Many country homes in the hollers of the '50's had this type of interior wall coverings. We didn't think anything of it, it was a way of keeping the cold wind and weather out. No one could afford insulation or better building materials. Country stores gave away advertising posters and newspapers, we saw it as shelter. For some mountain people, this to just became a tradition. Every spring you redid the walls and ceilings with fresh newspaper and cardboard removing the winters blackened coal dust wall coverings.

Zwelethu Mthethwa, '99, Near Cape Town, South Africa

Part of the school year, I attended the Hot Spot Elementary School in the mountains and the rest of the time I traveled with my father, attending school where ever his work took us. Some of my Kentucky classmates wore my older clothes to school. They let me know that they resented it, which I did not understand as a child. In my high school years, the newspaper background environment resurfaced, charged with new media underhanded covert activity. The '60's and early '70's was the time of the War on Poverty, the Vista workers and Peace Corps all came to Appalachia. When in art school at age 21 in 1971 upon my first viewing the FSA photography, I strongly disliked this work; it took some time for me to come to terms with this photography.

Berthie with Pipe and John, '92

The FSA work became iconic, so much so, that the outside media of the '60's and '70's, during the War on Poverty era came to Appalachia as photographers, journalist and film makers in search of the same. If the newspaper backgrounds could not be found, and they often could not, times had changed, families were compromised, paid to paste and glue newsprint to their kitchen walls and homes for photographs and films to be made. This was the times I grew up in during the "War On Poverty" days and local people spoke up, they felt manipulated and shamed. Folks said, "They come in here to help us, by makin' us look worse than we are. We don't like it". I grew up within a whirlwind of local gossip, rumors, stories and national media distortions. Supposedly, All for the benefit of the people.

In the summer of '89, I spoke with Berthie about photographing in her living room with the newsprint walls. To my surprise, she spoke proudly of them. Berthie told me, she learned "paperin" from her mother. She talked about the mixture of wheat paste and boiled water used in making the glue, how long it took for it to dry, etc. I made a Sunday 10:30 AM morning appointment with her and John to come and photograph in her living room, with whom ever they wanted to be in the picture. I arrived that morning, Berthie greeted me on the porch, her hands were dirty, with dried paste and her forehead was sweaty. She said, "Now, I want you to know I've got a brand new living room; stayed up till 2:00 this mornin' repapering everything." I felt my heart sink to the floor, thinking she had taken out the newsprint and painted over everything. Entering the living room, she said, "I got to studyin', I didn't want you to come take pictures with my smoked up ceilings black from the winter coal fires, so I got the boys to help me repaper everything last night. It looks better clean don't you think?" "Sure doe's," I said, as I looked with relief. Dan and James, two son's came over with Tricky, a pet dog. I set up my camera and lights and we began making Polaroid's, we were exposing film by noon.

Napier's Living Room, '89

Photographing "The Napier's Living Room", 1989 was made to make "amens" somehow, to put to rest some personal dissatisfaction with the media and to contribute to this outsider/insider historical litany of images. This photograph speaks with authenticity for me; it is made with the subject's awareness, cooperation and enthusiasm. That is important to all my portrait and environmental photographs. Further, I had no specific approach, but many memories and thoughts of how this situation might have been done before, right or wrong. This is the problem where we all get caught; we view photographs and see them with our agendas, personal histories, stereotypes and biases. I knew of media people who paid poor families to plaster the interior walls of their new  fiberboard kitchens with newsprint and then photograph the family's little children running around naked and dirty. Some media people got threatened even assaulted for this offense. This has a long history in my native county and it is still a thorny and complicated subject.

It is my intent to make photographs like "The Napier's Living Room" with an open mind and heart, listening to my subjects and their desires. To find and photograph this environment in 1989 in Beehive, Kentucky, authentic with the family so proud to have this photograph made. This was the correct moment for me in the present.  Hopefully, the viewer might see something "a new" without preconceived ideas or bias, certainly with no political agendas. Just how life is lived by some. That to require's an open mind from the viewer.

Shelby with Napier Family, '90
Photographer Moldenhauer

What comes from the depths of one's searching ? Does time, memory, long term relationships and multiple portrait sessions create validity and penetrate to greater truths ? Every manipulated picture made presents an opportunity for a new corrected way of seeing and image making.

Shelby Lee Adams

May 2007
Photo credits: Zwalethu Mthethwa, "Zwalethu Mthethwa", Marco Noire Editore Torino, '99, Italy

Lewis Hine, "America & Lewis Hine", Editor Walter Rosenblum, Aperture,
1977, NYC

Walker Evans, "Walker Evans, Photographs for the Farm Security Administration 1935-1938", De Capro Press, 1973, NYC

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