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

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 in video, with the Napier and Riddle Families. I had purchased a hog for $150.00. Both families and I discussed and agreed beforehand on making the photo  in the authentic mountain traditional way we were raised. It is important to work with  subjects who have lived and experienced rituals personally. A knowledgeable participant can intuitively contribute to the collaboration, as they understand the ritual and culture. To be from an area is not enough, to have actually lived the life is more substantial and carries more weight. I seek to photograph with people who know and are their own culture. This way false or naive facades are not projected - no one is acting a part, all are comfortable, authentic and understanding each other in different ways.

 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, this also followed the traditional mountain community ways of our forefathers and how they helped each other survive. The photograph and a VCR video recording of the event was given to all participants. The book this photo was first published in was in 1993, Appalachian Portraits, later given to all participants after publication.

Later, some criticism has been written that—I coerced my subjects into making this photography by offering them food [the hog] to begin with, written by those who know little about this culture, it’s people or myself. I make every effort to not compromise my subjects, but this is a way others might think and work. My manner is to work honestly and straightforwardly with all. If the participants receive some food and photographs for their efforts, that much the better. Relationships have been established with my subjects long ago and that makes a difference. 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 kill and eat squirrel or raccoon he does so without sacrificing his pride. This independent character trait is in part what draws me to these people in the first place, respectfully. That too is what I am photographing.

Some people simply cannot see or empathize with another’s experience. Those among us who are illiterate do not hold a time frame to define their rituals, memories and myths, because they are always in flux, living their ways. For them the photograph represents a fixed memory, what is called an archetype of our present life together, infinitely connecting and affirming that we all are here together. Hardened people often see and view others, dismissing their reality, when we actually need to share our common universal humanity with love and kindness within all cultures.

 The hog killing video material was made to be shared with my students in the class room with myself narrating, filmed in 1990. I was then head of the photo program at Salem St College. Since this was not a finished video project, each time I presented this video I orally explained the content, narrating and explaining to my students the ritual and cultural context, as with other video sketches. 
 I had forgotten this video footage was even in my archive, I loaned to the filmmakers in 2002. The summer of 2002 the filmmakers rented a cabin for one month in Eastern Kentucky and we went out visiting and filming practically every day. I did not know the filmmakers would use such old material to illustrate or accompany one photograph, when we had much new material to work with. I was never informed this 1990 material would be apart of the final film nor was I asked to submit any explanation, neither was I ask to put into context the hog killing filmed. I did submit the single photograph, The Hog Killing, 1990 with many other photos for the film "The True Meaning of Pictures." I ask for changes as detailed below.

 I was shocked to see this segment of video selected and edited into the beginning of film made in 2002. Their was no introduction to this segment, no text or explanation, of the ritual. This segment was a part of the 40 hours of video tapes I had loaned to the filmmakers. I realized only then, upon first viewing the film, I had mistakenly loaned the filmmakers 40 hours of my personal video tapes for them to edit — to portray me, my work and my culture at their discretion without any consults, approvals, feedback or consideration.

 There was no collaboration in editing any segments of the film as the filmmakers claimed. When I asked for changes, to remove or add a single photograph from another series about the Childers Family which I had originally placed in the project as a triptych, submitted separately with text and discussed beforehand. I was denied even that photo [triptych] correction. The triptych was not shown as submitted and unfortunately the single image used was taken out of context with only one image shown from the series misrepresenting my subjects and my intent.

 My intentions in premiering this series of three photos in this film was to share a subjective psychological interpretation of how we as viewers perceive the disadvantaged and importantly how they my subjects might perceive and express themselves through making their own self-portraits. This series was intended to portray a personal part of our humanity as I experience my friends and this series was grossly misrepresented by how the single image was used. I was told, nothing could be changed, the time line was complete and the budget was used up. I was told by the filmmakers, "After all it was only a documentary."

After the filming was all completed in Eastern Kentucky by the filmmakers we returned to KY after a few months to show each family their part in the film, a step I had insisted on. Jennifer, the filmmaker and I visited each family and showed them their part in the film in their own homes and we ask for their approval. No parts were denied. But many of these segment's were never shown, used or apart of the final film. These parts were edited differently in the final version or not shown at all. To my mind, this defeated the respect and clarity I was trying to establish by showing the families their segments beforehand, but doing this did secure model releases for the filmmakers.

I found out later a large part of the film's budget went for the usage rights of the Hollywood production film clip from the movie Deliverance. At first I refused to have anything to do with film, canceling my flight to the Toronto Film Festival where the film was premiered. I unfortunately allowed my then friend Stephen Bulger who was also at that time my gallery rep. a supposed friend to myself and the filmmakers, he persuaded me to attend. With conflict and ambivalence, I reluctantly signed the agreement, attending the films premiere.  

I recently found a letter I had sent to the filmmaker in Jan. 2003 stating that I had shipped 150 exhibition still photographs to be considered in the production of the film, including some rare prints from the 1980's that were unique and I found later when returned to be irreplaceably damaged. The end result of the film predominately aired many excerpts from my personal video work without clear credits. I think approximately 90 of my photographs are actually used in the final production and many are cropped and shown in a sensationalized manner. I enthusiastically provided all materials, I was told that the film would represent my black and white photographs, as I intended. Most all photographs were cropped and panned misrepresenting my manner of working and intentions, with few images or sequences shown as I had created. Beforehand, the filmmakers and I had carefully reviewed and discussed several films made on other still photographers work and we discussed how their work was represented successfully or not in those films.

 Unfortunately, much of the final film continues the same old stereotypes, sensationalizing my work, my culture and the people I so carefully try and portray. Not only in the hog killing segment but the unique serpent handling religion among other sections. 

       It was my commitment to give, share and try and broaden appreciation for my culture and my life’s work, providing explanations and visual material to help inspire compassion and change for the better, hopefully adding deeper understandings and appreciations for my people, their religion and the culture in general. Unfortunately when all things are considered, this film for the most part just sensationalizes existing stereotypes and misunderstandings, creating controversy where I sought to expand understanding. As one of my subjects said, "It's a salt and pepper kind of story, our story is often told underhanded."      

Now at age 67, I feel it important to write about some of my experiences around this films production that others say, "Represents my life's work."

Shelby Lee Adams—Updated post Feb. 2018

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 Information: Steve

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 primitive spirit from which many mountain people came. They had not been photographed by the media or affected by modern ways, and they were open. Representing 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 hopefully help move it forward.

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 Brooke White, Russell Lee and writers for example 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 material influenced the sixties Andy Warhol generation and more contemporary work today for example, Zwelethu Mthethwa. Here it was in the Napier's living room in 1989. I had never personally seen this newspaper background in any home, in my adult life. 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. 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.

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 school year 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 upon my first viewing the FSA photography, I strongly disliked it; it took some time for me to come to terms with this work.

Berthie with Pipe and John, '92

The FSA work had also impressed the world, 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, things were improving, compromised families were paid to paste and glue newsprint to their kitchen walls and homes for photographs and films to be made. This was the environment I grew up in and local people spoke up, they felt 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. 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 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 done to make "amens" somehow, to put to rest some personal dissatification and to contribute to this outsider/insider historical litany of images. For an artist, clarity is made into physical forms, in this case a photograph between conscious reality and unconcious feelings, hurts and needs. This photograph speaks with my interpretation to the meaning of authenticity; it is made with the subject's awareness, cooperation and enthusiam. That is important to all my portrait photographs. Further, this photographer has no specific assigned agenda, but many memories and thoughts of how it might have been done before, right or wrong. This is the problem where we all get caught; we view photographs and make them with our agendas, personal histories, stereotypes and biases. This subject has a history and it is a thorny one. It is my intention to make photographs like "The Napier's Living Room" with an open mind and open heart. Hopefully the viewer might see something here "a new" without preconceived ideas or bias, that to requires an open mind from the viewer.

Shelby with Napier Family, '90
Photographer Moldenhauer

What comes from the depths of one's efforts ? Does time, memory, long term relationships and multiple portrait sessions create more validity ? Do we see with different eyes ? Is this longevity multiplying perspectives and does this take us forward ?

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

The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of a copyrighted work is illegal. Criminal copyright infringement, including infringement without monetary gain, is investigated by the FBI and is punishable by fines and federal imprisonment.

All photographs and text copyrighted - © 1978 - 2012 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.