Shelby Lee Adams VisComm Essay

This paper, originally written on March 4th, 2012, was submitted as an assignment for my introductory Visual Communications course at Cornell.It was written in response to a documentary we watched about photographer Shelby Lee Adams and earned me an A. Sorry in advance for formatting issues. Enjoy!


One of the most important senses known to man is that of sight. It is through aid of the human eye that we are able to experience the visual elements of the world around us, indulging in the beauty of natural landscapes and the faces of the ones we love. With the invention of photography, humans can now create a sense of permanence in our visual simulations, freezing special moments in time forever. Because photographs depict actual persons and landscapes, we automatically trust their validity much more confidently we do a painting or a sculpture. Oftentimes, however, as photography advances alongside technology, viewers are being misled. A computer program called Photoshop provides one of many sources for photo manipulation, while several other methods have surfaced as well to blur the line of trust between “real photos” and manipulations. The work of famous photographer Shelby Lee Adams can provide an insightful case study into discovering what the true meaning behind photographs is and whether or not photography as a medium serves as a genuine interpretation of its subjects. A documentary about Adams’ Appalachian photography, “The True Meaning of Pictures,” addresses these complex issues. Although there are many critics of Adams’ work, there is more compelling evidence to believe that Shelby Lee Adams’ photography rightfully depicts culture in Eastern Kentucky, proving why visual media is such a crucial outlet for learning.

Images have more power than words. People really want to imagine that the subject actually exists,” (Rubenstein). These words, spoken by Rhonda Rubenstein, a multifaceted publications specialist, exemplify the power visual imagery holds over that of the written word. We could read a textbook in class about a particular culture leagues apart from ours, never truly grasping the novelty of their traditions, or, we could actually look at pictures of them and immediately get a firm sense what their lives were like. Shelby Lee Adams uses the latter approach when capturing still images of Eastern Kentucky’s Appalachian residents. His photographs show the hardships they have endured for years, providing a first-hand look at their quaint farm-like homes and quirky decorations (“Edleman Gallery”). Watching the documentary revealed hard, worn faces with a tough mentality, all trying to get by for just another day (Biachwal). Some of the poorest people live in this region, but they don’t let their fiscal instability compromise their hard-working demeanors. Each resident has a role in their society; the children play with the chickens and livestock, the women work just as hard as the men do, toiling day and night, and generations come together in such close quarters, turning the load of a hard day’s work into a communal effort (Biachwal). Much like the documentary, Adams’ pictures mimic the tenacity these residents exhibited in their daily lives (“Edleman Gallery”).

A major reason why Adam’s photography is a powerful representation of the Appalachians is his keen understanding of indexicality and iconicity respectively. As These two elements of photography are crucial to one’s success in the field and even more important in determining what the true meaning of a photograph is. Indexicality refers to the belief that, since Adams’ work is composed of real photographs, we can conclude they are real representations of actual events. As Professor Scherer pointed out in class, even if a photograph is staged or altered, our immediate reaction is to believe a picture is real, serving as evidence that something happened (Scherer). Thus, we look at Adams’ images and believe they legitimately illustrate life in the Appalachians. We presume that he doesn’t fabricate their wardrobes or household environments and take his images at face value naturally. Adams’ supporters can attest to the effectiveness of his simplistic photography. “We are seeing the real people in their natural surroundings doing what they do and what their families have done for generations,”   (Orr).

Iconicity, the second technique Adams employs, means that an image elicits an emotional response from its audiences. We view Adams’ photographs and think; “Wow, how can people live like that?” as a pang of guilt for our good fortune may strike a chord in our stomachs. Photographic iconicity is meant to represent some element of reality (Scherer). When looking at Adams’ work, plenty of thoughts run through our minds because of similar life experiences of our own. One may know little to nothing about the Appalachian range dwellers, but we all see the dirt, the wrinkles and the stern expressions on their faces that contribute to an overall sentiment anyone can recognize.

Not everyone will agree, however, with the iconicity of Adams’ work. We can all agree that its there-photographs are comprised of symbols and icons that portray all aspects of reality. However, our interpretations of said icons are what lead to criticisms of Adams’ photography. We can use the example of one of his most photographed women in the series, Berthie Naiper. What may look like a grumpy, fragile, old farming Grandmother to you may appear as a well-respected woman of a long, strenuous life to me. A woman who’s absent smile could reveal a sense of humble acceptance, rather than misery or depravity.

Ultimately, I think the fact that we have different opinions when viewing an image is one of several reasons why the true meaning of a photograph cannot be concretely defined or unanimously decided upon much like a math equation can be memorized. Every photographer has particular intentions –in Adams’ case it was to show the tenacity of these mountain dwellers- and every audience interprets those intentions differently. Adams successfully captured this notion by quoting William James in his blog:

“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 our own minds—William James,” (Adams).

In other words, half of the viewing experience is up to the mind of the individual. Thus, different viewers from various cultures and global coordinates can be looking at the same image in very unique- and sometimes contrasting- lights.

This discrepancy could largely attribute to why Adams has some critics. Those in opposition of his work feel that he is not one to take “masterful and poignant shots of the people of Appalachia,” as Michael Orr claims. Rather, the critics cite Adams’ exposure of an already stigmatized people, instigating labels such as “hick” and “hillbilly,”  (Carden).

While these labels are certainly degrading, one could counter their criticisms with the fact that there are negative stereotypes of every culture. For example, high-end fashion magazines portray the lavish lifestyles of the rich and famous with a condescending air but this does not mean that everyone with money is automatically entitled. I think it is up to the viewer to decide whether or not an image is personally insulting, but a photographer’s intentions are more important in analyzing an image for it’s validity. How do we know that Adams’ was truly trying to stigmatize the Appalachian people? We don’t. Rather, we can go off the evidence that he respected the Appalachian culture for what it was. In response to a rather graphic image of his called The Hog Killing, Adams stated,  “Both families and I agreed to the making of the photograph in the authentic traditional mountain manner,” (Adams).

Although these opinions about Adams’ work contrast starkly, one must acknowledge that, in photography, like most artistic expressions, there will always be multiple ways to interpret an artist’s work. Whether one agrees with the notion that Adams’ photographs were tastefully done or feels as if they were evasive and a false depiction, neither opinion of his image is superior over the other. When assessing the true meaning of a photograph we can all agree that it lies not in the opinion of the viewer, but in the photographer’s mode of expression. Each photographer visualizes a particular scene or subject in a different light, using unique camera angles, lighting levels, lens sizes and more to evoke his or her own interpretation of the image. Thus, we can conclude that to truly find out an image’s meaning we should ask none other than the person behind the camera.