Controversial fine-arts photographer Shelby Lee Adams is given a fascinatingly even-handed cinematic trial via "The True Meaning of Pictures," a docu inquiry by Jennifer Baichwal ("Let It Come Down: The Life of Paul Bowles"). Provocative and nonjudgmental, pic is perfect pubcaster fare, with a long educational shelf life ahead of it.

Controversial fine-arts photographer Shelby Lee Adams is given a fascinatingly even-handed cinematic trial via “The True Meaning of Pictures,” a docu inquiry by Jennifer Baichwal (“Let It Come Down: The Life of Paul Bowles”). Provocative and nonjudgmental, pic is perfect pubcaster fare, with a long educational shelf life ahead of it.

A native of the eastern Kentucky region he’s photographed for more than three decades (though raised in solidly middle-class circumstances), Adams has engendered furious pro/con response. Undeniably striking, his B&W pictures capture the poorest, most “backward” sectors of Appalachian society — large extended families living in primitive conditions on rural backroads, their individual faces wizened with age, scarred by fights or accidents, blank from birth defects. Foes claim he exploits longtime stereotypes of possibly “inbred,” unsanitary, know-nothing “hillbilly” life, sending such images out to the world while ignoring the region’s middle-class majority.

Adams’ subjects seem to enjoy the attention, finding nothing belittling about their photos. He’s befriended many such clans over the years, and chafes at accusations that he’s “exploiting my own culture.” Yet he admits taking family-photo pics and giving gifts (he’s seen handing over a BBQ) in return for posed shots that are classically composed and feature intricate, often chiaroscuro-gothic lighting. Result makes these “hollar dwellers” look grotesque and pathetic, like backwoods Diane Arbus subjects. His responses to hard questions come off faux-naive. It’s notable pic is never allowed the least insight into his own private life, while those of his “models” are luridly up for grabs.

Clips from “Deliverance” and references to the “Lil’ Abner” comic strip illustrate why some locals bridle, citing a century-long history of media stereotyping toward Appalachia. At the same time, excerpts from Adams’ own considerable library of video footage — including a hog-slaughtering for which he bought and delivered the hog — reveals an uneducated populace that feels far less exploited by him than it does by the coal mining industry, corporate environmental despoilers, et al. Grad-school quailings about “authenticity” from various big-city gallery owners, museum curators and art crix seem awfully chi-chi by contrast.

Is Adams an aesthetically gifted slummer among “white trash” society — he even rattlesnake-handles alongside Pentecostal Christian pals — or is he simply “trying to express myself with … my friends whom I love and care about”? It’s to Baichwal’s credit that “True Meaning” leaves us very much unsure about the answer.

Beautiful landscape views of Appalachia provide a recurrent poetical motif in technically polished docu.

The True Meaning of Pictures: Shelby Lee Adams' Appalachia

Canada

Production

A Mercury Films Inc. production in association with TV Ontario and Bravo! Canada. Produced by Nick de Pencier, Jennifer Baichwal. Directed by Jennnifer Baichwal.

Crew

Camera (color, HD Cam), Nick de Pencier; archival video camera, Shelby Lee Adams; editor, David Wharnsby; music supervisor, Steve Pritchard; sound (Dolby), Justine Pimlott. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (World Documentary), Jan. 17, 2003. Running time: 70 MIN.
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