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 
Part I - The Hog Killing

          Now at age 67, I feel it important to write about some of my experiences with the film, “The True Meaning of Pictures,” a documentary production based on my life, culture and photography that many students and faculty tell me they currently study in photo programs across the country, some say this film, "Represents my life's work."


           The final film was selectively edited to create the filmmakers point of view; constructed from varied sources, my personal video collection of 40 tapes that documented over 80 hours of events made over a 15 year period, the film maker's material made in Kentucky during a months stay in the summer of 2002 filming and recording interviews with my assistance, interviews done independently at varied locations and finally the filmmakers licensing and use of a famous Hollywood film segment from the film Deliverance.

            It was my commitment to give, share and try to broaden appreciation for my culture and my life’s work, providing visual materials, text, photographs, and interviews to help create a compelling film. My goal in making this film was hopefully to deepen compassion for my subjects, my photography, and to provide an inside perspective that might bring more respect and understanding to my people, their perspectives and their culture. 
      

        Several misunderstandings occur within the film. The history behind the hog killing picture:
 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 in video. I had purchased a hog for $150.00. Both families and I had previously discussed and agreed beforehand on making the photo  in our authentic traditional ways in which all participants experienced. 

It is important to work with  subjects who have lived and experienced rituals personally. A knowledgeable participant can intuitively contribute to a collaboration as they understand the ritual and their own culture. To be from an area is not enough, to have actually lived the life is more substantial and carries more authenticity.

I seek to photograph with people who know their own environments and have lived the rituals we photograph. This way false or naive facades are not projected - no one is acting a part. All are comfortable, genuine and understanding of each other's life and culture.

            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], published by The University Press of Mississippi was later also distributed to all participants.


                     Some criticism has been written, by those who know little about this culture, its people or myself, saying that I coerced my subjects into making this photography by offering the subjects food. I make every effort to not compromise my subjects, though this is a way others might think and work. 

          My manner is to work honestly and straightforwardly with all developing long-term relationships. If participants receive some food and photographs for their efforts in making photographs, that much the better, to be helpful to others. That in my opinion is an exchange. A genuine friendship and camaraderie produces more natural and engaged photographs. 

       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 in part what draws me to these people, respectfully. That 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 in a state of flux. 

          Hardened people often see and view others, dismissing their reality, when we actually need to share more of our  universal common humanity with love and kindness within all cultures.


             The hog killing video was originally made to share with my students in the classroom with myself narrating, made in 1990. I was then head of the photo program at Salem State College, my intentions in making the video in part was to  illustrate a part of my life to my students. How a formal group composition is put together naturally, how the people interrelate and technically how the lighting illuminates the subjects, all are important. Further, to record this event as a cultural phenomena with people who also lived this ritual genuinely was important. Since this was not a finished project, each time I presented this video I orally explained the content, narrating and explaining to my students the ritual, technical information and cultural context, as I did with other video and still projects.



        I had forgotten the 1990 hog killing footage was even in my video archive. When ask by the filmmakers to send all my video work to them on short notice, I trusted them and complied without reviewing all my video archive, one year go's by without my seeing anything [2003] of the film. The year before, [2002] the filmmakers and I spent a month on location working on this project. I thought that the new material they shot when in Kentucky and while visiting my home in Pittsfield was to become the basic film. No one told me the hog killing was even a part of the final film. I saw it only after the finished product was made. 

      In my opinion we had recorded plenty of new material more relevant to my photography in the summer of 2002. I was not asked to submit any explanation of the hog killing ritual or to put this material into any context. I did submit the single photograph, The Hog Killing, 1990 from my first books publication with many other photos for the film, "The True Meaning of Pictures." I asked for changes as detailed below.


      I was shocked to see this segment of video used and edited into the beginning of the film. There was no introduction to this segment and no text or explanation. This segment was a part of approximately 80 hours of diverse video material I had loaned to the filmmakers. I realized only then, I had mistakenly loaned the filmmakers this material to portray, my work and my culture at their discretion without any consults, approvals, feedback or consideration.


Part ll - The Childers


         There was no collaboration in editing any segments of the film as the filmmakers claimed. For example, when I asked for changes, to remove a single photograph or have it added into the triptych as originally submitted, I was denied that correction. The triptych was not shown as submitted and unfortunately these images were used taken out of context with the single images being shown independently from the series misrepresenting my subjects the Childers Family and our intent.



         My intentions in wanting to premier this triptych in the film was to share a new subjective, challenging and personal photo series, featuring my friends and how we collaborated, how they photographed themselves, accepting themselves. Three children in this unique family were mentally and physically impaired. It was our intentions to share these sensitive photos to illustrate the family's commitment and manner of expressing them selves, staying together. The Childers were unlike many modern society family's that hide away their special children in institutions.

        The pictures also reflect and respond to how this family felt others looked upon them and how neighbors treated them. But, their Acceptance and love of each other is something we can all learn from if we care to think and study their situation. My photographic approach sometimes used wide-angle lenses on a view camera making 4x5 Polaroids to playfully engage my subjects. The camera position was made easy for the special children to reach and photograph themselves, approximately 3 feet up from the floor. The mother felt some neighbors viewed her children in discerning ways, some cruelly judging in unreal and distorted ways. We made pictures together at their varied homes over the years reflecting back emotional responses, also making pictures sharing many joyous times. All these photos were personal and mirrored how the family felt about them selves and how they thought others might be seeing them.

         Our primary goal was to come as closely as possible to viewing the world from the special children's perspective, where they freely participated photographing making Polaroids and exposing film this was a unique collaboration.




         By photographing ourselves together this series attempts to study and explore human diversity within our region. Why do some distance themselves from others different from themselves? Psychologically more is going on than meets the eye. Is it fear or prejudice that pulls some back? More often, from my experience the disadvantaged person frequently reaches out and offers communication and affection, touching others, where the average person continually withdraws and retreats from those not like themselves. Shouldn't we be more curious to want to encompass those reaching out to touch us? 

            Much more work needs to be done in this area, but my intentions, with text and photographs have not always been recognized. Instead this specific body of work has often been taken and used out of context.



               How the Childers family and I worked photographing together was a form of creative therapy let us say, in fact a subjective and positive experience for the disadvantaged children and all who participated. We photographed ourselves playfully, sometimes the wide-angle lens distorts but that was irrelevant to our concerns. We felt these images revealed feelings freely and they were easier for the disabled children to make themselves, as the camera focusing wasn't necessarily as critical using wide-angle lenses. Sometimes how those pictures turned out was how we felt intuitively about ourselves and where we were. We often were just having a good time with the special children...like any children playing.



                   Discovering that these special children had no inhibitions —  photographing, sharing images, making self-portraits and making other family pictures, mirroring ourselves to each other, without fear or becoming self-couscous. All was inspiring, attempting to open new territories, tearing down old taboos, breaking down institutional and visual boundaries... seeing differently. None of these intentions or motivations was ever mentioned in film. Yet, the photographs were used.

               Much of society is prepositioned to view our dependent folk negatively. The Childers parents and I were working encouraging the children's unguarded spontaneity and perspective; this approach provided a unique innocent inspiration and openness. That is much of what my photography is about.



“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
[Mother]

         
  

               Our Background: My uncle, Doc Adams was the Childers family physician and friend. The Childers were neighbors to many of my  relatives as I was growing up in Eastern Kentucky. In our rural environment contrasting stories were rampant even then. I grew up with these stories; they were my beginning connection to the Childers. That information and family history was not introduced, narrated or presented in the film. This background established trust and led to the experimental photos discussed and misused in the film. I told the filmmakers when working together in Kentucky that all kinds of rumors were spread unsubstantiated about the Childers Family and this was not important to our visually portraying them for societies greater acceptance. I believe repeating rumors only stigmatizes people and cultures. 

               Nothing could be verified medically or socially and perhaps it is best to see things openly, more in a state of awe or wonder, just accepting, more humanly and sensitively without labeling or judging. See and accept as an artist sees the world. See deeper. Yet, I remember when Jennifer had one of her first Internet interviews in Canada right after the films release, she reports some damaging stories as fact that I had told her in confidence as Appalachian stereotyping rumors. I still hold the printed versions from these interviews, that I asked to be removed from the Internet right away. I believe her true feelings were expressed then to gain attention for our film.  

               Stereotyping continues. My intentions with the making of this film was to create awareness and help others overcome prejudice and distancing for the Childers and society at large. With the Childers family fully cooperating and engaged, we were trying to confront society with its' taboos that cause segregation and distancing.

             From my experience familiarity leads to acceptance, overcoming discomfort by association creating greater compassion and kindness. Visiting [field work] is often necessary, again and again. When that is not possible studying photography and films can strengthen compassion for our diverse humanity. This family had suffered in my home region and it was my commitment to try and help give them some kind of voice and credibility. Photography and film is a superb media to help us understand and encompass complex issues. Instead I felt this film was in part more about sensationalizing my work.


            My triptych with a text submitted to be a part of the film was grossly misrepresented by how the single images were used. I was told, nothing could be changed, the time line was complete and the budget was depleted. I was told by the filmmakers, "After all it was only a documentary." The betrayal and shame I felt then was paralyzing. Today, it still matters, because some academics, writers and critics refer to this film as authoritative, continuing stereotyping using my work as examples, when in fact my intentions were quite the opposite.



Part of my triptych used in film totally out of context.



                The Film Background: After the filming was completed in Eastern Kentucky that summer of 2002 we again returned to KY to show each family their parts in the film, a step I had insisted on. Jennifer, the filmmaker, and I visited each family showing them their parts in their home environments and we ask for their approval. No parts were denied. But many of these segments were never shown or included, as a part of the final film project. Those film clips used were later edited differently in the final program or not a part at all.  These follow up visits only secured model releases for the filmmakers, when it was my intentions to establish better relationships and communications with our subjects.



               I found out later 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, used in making a negative cultural association.  Other disappointments were apparent. At first I refused to have anything to do with the film, receiving a copy of the film only three days before the scheduled premiere, in Toronto. I unfortunately consulted my then friend Stephen Bulger who was also at that time my gallery rep. and friend who had brought the  filmmakers and myself together. He alone persuaded me to attend the film screening. In conflict and ambivalence, I reluctantly attended 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 vintage prints from the 1980's that were unique and I found later when returned to be irreplaceably damaged, no insurance coverage was available.



               The film incorporated many excerpts from my personal video work without clear credits. I think approximately 90 of my photographs were actually used and many are cropped and shown in a fast zooming sensationalized manner. I was never consulted on how my photographs were represented.



         Thinking back, I enthusiastically provided all materials and interviews. 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 compositions and manner of working with few images or sequences shown as I had created. Beforehand, the filmmakers and I had carefully reviewed and discussed several other photographers' films, we discussed how other professional works were represented on film successfully or not.




                 Regrettably when all things are considered, this film for the most part overstates and sensationalizes existing stereotypes and repeats the same old misunderstandings, creating controversy where I was seeking a new way of looking to challenge and expand our societies acceptance of others more diverse.

 As one of my subjects said, "Our story is often told underhanded."
      


Shelby Lee Adams—Updated post August 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.


Essay

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.