View Full Version : Discuss a William Gedney and Shelby Lee Adams Photograph

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Gay Larson
12-02-2006, 09:43 PM
When I looked at the girls in the kitchen, it reminded me of my youth in my grandmother's kitchen with my cousin. There was no poverty, at least to my knowledge. Perhaps we were poor, I didn"tfeel it. The floral wallpaper, an attempt to brighten the kitchen did it for me. I prefer Gedney rather than Adams because Adams doesn't seem to let you into their lives. As far as exploitation, I have no way of knowing the photographers motives or his relationships with the subject. Why do I need to know this? You asked my opinions on the photographs not the motives of the photographers.

12-03-2006, 08:06 AM
Thanks everyone, for you thoughtful comments.

When I first came across Shelby Lee Adams work, I was a bit turned off by the highly stylized light, his subjects looking straight at the camera and posed, and all made with a view camera. The light somehow gives all the texture in these people's lives a certain sameness, even though it makes there run down homes look quite extraordinarily beautiful. It becomes about the sufaces, and the technique seems at odds, somehow, with his subject. Having said all that, I admire his effort to make these photographs so differently than we have already seen in the long tradition of documentary photography. I have found my own biasis challenged by studying his work. And, everytime I look at Adam's photos, it brings Gedney's image to mind.

As for Gedney's photograph, I have always been partial to it. It's a lovely image for all the reasons stated above. He was a very deliberate photographer, I think he knew the angle of his lens very well, and he was a very astute observer with his 35mm camera. I'd be surprised if he wasn't very aware of every detail in that kitchen when he made this photograph, even if sub-conciously. His approach to his work strikes me, not so much documentary, but more as a poet or a musician. He travelled, and explored, and really observed people. I think he stayed in touch with the families he got to know in Kentucky, and he lived a fairly solitary life. He was very focused on his work as a photographer.

On a personal note, I took some classes with him in college. He was one of the best printers I have ever learned from, and he had us making wonderful prints by the end of the semester. This photograh of his, he said, was a pain in the neck to print with a lot of burning and dodging, and it was included "Family of Man" exhibit way back when. He sold a number of prints of it! Just his luck... his most popular photograph would be one that was hard to print!!

The website with his work is more archive than a portfolio. It's too bad, I would love to see a book of his work, maybe with a bit of editing, and organizing, as I really enjoy perusing through his photos from time to time.

Alex Hawley
12-03-2006, 09:51 AM
I think there are excellent clues to the motivation behind Shelby Lee Adams in his biography (http://www.edelmangallery.com/adams-bio.htm). A couple quotes from it:

When a film crew visited his home town, Adams naturally wanted to help, taking them to his meet his grandparents and his uncle so they could film their daily lives. When the media described them as malnourished and poor, his friends and family felt betrayed. This devastated Adams, who felt he had misled the people he so dearly loved -- an experience that had a profound impact on him, leading him to photograph the people of Appalachia.

That Adams returns to the mountains year after year is a testament to his dedication to show their challenging existence while maintaining their dignity.

I can recall from my high school days the campaign that portrayed Appalachia in that negative light. I wonder how many comments in this thread are based upon that portrayal? That's the type of exploitation I was addressing in my comments. It would appear that it had a profound influence on Adams and his life's work.

Same thing happened in my native area in the Depression and Dust Bowl days. Swarms of "Do-Gooders" and "Activists" came in telling everyone how pitifully underprivledged they were. This was highly resented. "The Grapes of Wrath" was NOT considered to be an accurate portrayal.

12-03-2006, 10:23 AM
I like the first picture a lot. The Gedney one. It has soul and interest and a voyeuristic aspect to it.

As for the Adams stuff it looks poorly shot, some with flash on camera, and the usual " lets go out and shoot some hillbillies" stuff. "Here I sit with my goose". Jesus, give me a break.

I dislike this type of work as much as I disliked that sophisticated New Yorker, Avedon, packing up his entourage and heading out into the boonies to shoot the yokels. And then pretending he gives a shit about them.


12-08-2006, 02:19 PM
I like the Gedney image - has a casual observer feel to it butof course we never are - that said its natural and easy to engage with. I can't say the same for the Adams image - too harsh - brutal maybe confrontational in a way that does little for the subjects.

Poverty - its so relative. I spent over 4 years in Central America and lived with people in very very basic circumstances. They were often the happiest and most generous people I have met. Whilst as an outsider I was used to a different standard of living could I say it was better and happier - not so sure. There is a difference between people living in poverty and those that are being exploited - I appreciate the two are often interlinked. Are we exploiting them but making images of them that are rarely to highlight the plight some folk live in and strive to help or for our own gratification is questionable. I spent some time in Sri Lanka and was a little annoyed when locals often asked for money when I tried to make images - but why not - why should I have been - they were asking for pennies by our standards - who was exploiting whom?

Just my thoughts of course...

Struan Gray
12-08-2006, 03:41 PM
The Gedney photo is easy to like, as are most of the photos in the series. It's more National Geographic, more uplifting, less comitting. We can look at these people's lives without any consequence to ourselves beyond what we choose to feel.

Adams' subjects don't just know they are being photographed. They know they are being pitied - and that they are being pitied for what they are rather than who they are. That makes them, and the photographs less likable.

Geoff Dyer's "Ongoing Moment" talks a fair bit about Gedney, but I still can't recommend it as a purchase. I think the author profile says he has co-authored a book about Gedney, but my copy is boxed up for a house move so I can't check. It might be worth a look if you don't have to pay for it :-)

04-20-2007, 03:35 PM
I like the Gedney image - has a casual observer feel to it butof course we never are - that said its natural and easy to engage with. I can't say the same for the Adams image - too harsh - brutal maybe confrontational in a way that does little for the subjects.

Just viewed a video on Adams - funny how I now feel my interpretation of his images is so far wide of the mark. Seeing how much collaboration goes into his image making - brutally honest is probably closer to the mark...