Magazine article Artforum International

Shelby Lee Adams

Magazine article Artforum International

Shelby Lee Adams

Article excerpt

OGDEN MUSEUM OF SOUTHERN ART, UNIVERSITY OF NEW ORLEANS

In a statement introducing Shelby Lee Adams's "Salt & Truth" exhibition (on view through January 7), the artist claims it has become difficult to find "authentic, salt-of-the-earth people" to photograph. Adams's words are those of a man who, for nearly forty years, has been photographing mountain dwellers in the eastern Kentucky Appalachians (not far from where he grew up), focusing always on the lifers rather than on the newcomers, many of whom are affiliated with corporate strip mining. But if change is apparent in this part of the country, Adams's portraits stubbornly suspend it. Recent forays into digital color aside, he has shot most of his work in black-and-white on film, framing his subjects posing frankly beside their possessions or means of livelihood. Save for an incidental logo or tattoo, seldom is post-Depression modernity in evidence. Cue the Walker Evans comparisons. Yet Adams's eye is warmer, more willfully documentarian than Evans's--or Alec Soth's or Katy Grannan's, for that matter. Nevertheless, his photos raise similar issues: What exactly is "authenticity" and what does it say about a photographer who aims to extract its essence from people?

The portraits gathered for this show evince a conscious effort to communicate immutability, perhaps an implicit argument that time--and modernity--exists differently in the "hollers." Adam Clark Vroman's austere turn-of-the-century portraits of native tribes in the American Southwest come to mind as an important precedent here. Both photographers have recorded a disappearing American lifestyle, as if implicitly showing it to be endangered and misunderstood. For Adams's part, he claims his process to he collaborative: He has loyally photographed certain families for multiple generations. In "Salt & Truth," some photos date back to 1979, but most are from the past ten years. In one image, Billy Ray is pictured leaning on his stove; in another, little Vanessa stands with a slight forward hunch, just like the woman in the photo on the wall behind her. Then there is the freckled teen in Natasha, 2003, who, tattooed and wearing a cropped tank, looks about ready to melt into a puddle of mortification if not bolt for the next bus to New York. …

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