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

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12-01-2006, 08:52 PM
Thought I would change the focus of the conversation from one photograph to a couple of photographs from two different photographers.

The first, a William Gedney photo here (http://scriptorium.lib.duke.edu/gedney/photographs/KY/KY00/KY0008-72dpi.jpeg), and the second by Shelby Lee Adams, here (http://www.edelmangallery.com/adams27.htm).

The late Bill Gedney photographed in Appalachia in the mid 60's early 70's with a 35mm camera. He stayed with a couple of different families during his time there. More of his work can be seen here (http://scriptorium.lib.duke.edu/gedney/photographs.html).

Adam's grew up in Appalachia, and continues to go back during the summers to photograph. More of his work is here (http://www.edelmangallery.com/adams.htm). He still shoots every summer, I think, in Kentucky.

Each approached this subject completely differently, but I think both bring a compassionate eye to a subject which has been exploited and sterotyped in a lot of different mediums. I would like to read your thoughts on photographing poverty, and the work of these two photographers in particular.

Do Gedney's more documentary photographs or Adams well lit and posed images speak to you more?

12-01-2006, 08:56 PM
Maybe it's just me (or my computer) but them thar links aint a-workin'


Bill Hahn
12-01-2006, 08:58 PM

I'm having trouble with both your links -- there may be an extra "http".

But speaking of Appalachia, one book I've never managed to get back from my octogenarion mother is Wendy Ewald's "Portraits and Dreams"....

12-01-2006, 09:00 PM
Ok.. think I fixed the links!

Bill Mitchell
12-01-2006, 10:13 PM
I think that your idea of presenting the two together is an excellent one.
I saw a Gedney retrospective a few years ago at MOMA in San Francisco, and felt that he certainly made extensive coverage of his material, but there is no depth to it. Adams, on the other hand, judging from the DVD of his work, digs deeply into his somewhat banal subject matter, but there is a definite paucity of the breadth of his coverage (thanks in part to his method of working with the view camera). Neither of these men present a very honest picture of the people of Appalachia.

12-01-2006, 10:36 PM
I think they both show the influence of Evans and Lange. Gedney seems more "detached" and documentary whereas Adams wants to "engage" his subjects.

Both are effective in portraying the "plight of poverty" although, to be honest, I think the Adams photo also subtly shows the "misplaced priorities (values?)" of some poor folk which dooms them to continued poverty. The late model pickup and "flashy, if cheap" bicycle stand in stark contrast to the rundown trailer home in the background.

This is the kind of "ingrained poverty" one finds up here in Copake. One where a well-worn trailer home sports a brand-new pickup in front of it and a DTV antenna on the roof. Arguably, this kind of disparity can be said to just be an "alternative lifestyle" since it goes on, generation after generation.

The Gedney picture, to me, is a bit more "uplifting" in the sense that it suggests that despite the daily poverty faced by these girls they portray a "spirited approach to life" that suggests they can rise above it all (as symbolized by the sunshine in the window?).

But then again, there may also be that spanking new pickup outside and that DTV antenna on the roof and no real desire to move beyond the poverty that has existed in the family for generation after generation.

bruce terry
12-02-2006, 03:51 AM
Always interesting how we see the same things differently. Me, I really like the Wm Gedney 35mm photograph - I feel like I'm in that kitchen, unnoticed, these three girls off in their own separate little worlds, lazing in the summer heat with no place in particular to go, bored, the pile of dirty dishes - boys - not their problem yet. And I'm moved to wonder where their lives took them. (With a daughter and a granddaughter you do that.)

The S L Adams example however seems too trick, too posed, just a stolen 'poor-person' trophy to mount over the fireplace.

Equipment isn't the problem here, it's how it was used.

Thanks Suzanne for the thoughtful question.


PS Found the rest of their stuff on both their websites like what Bill said and more - pretty much banal of banal.

David H. Bebbington
12-02-2006, 06:01 AM
I hate to say it, but I find both images totally banal. I really get no feeling of why they have been made or of what viewpoint the photographers have. Failing this, I am always suspicious of photographers being exploitative, although I have no evidence one way or the other in these cases.

12-02-2006, 08:07 AM
I find the "photographer's being exploitative" a tired argument. Are you suggesting that they should not have made these photographs? Can photographers ever approach a difficult or sensitive subject matter without being accused of exploiting it?

And, really, aren't we always exploiting what we photograph? Including the landscape?

If you find these photographs banal... why?

David Henderson
12-02-2006, 08:30 AM
Interesting comparison of two photographers from the "one step ahead of photographing the homeless" school.

I think I get a different impression from comparing the two photographs you've specifically introduced than I do from the portfolios I've looked at. Of the two photographs, I by far prefer the Gedney for its lighting and composition. The Adams photo, by comparison I'd think of as being a contrived snapshot with few qualities to mark this out as the work of a photographer rather than a random person with a camera.

But looking at wider portfolios evens things up a lot in my view. Sure some of the trappings are different but that's because there's thirty years between the photographs and even though the people are continuingly poor their lives have changed a lot in that time. I can't say that the meaning or purpose of either set of photographs is at all clear to me though. and whether they are campaigning photojournalism, detached documentary or downright exploitative isn't a judgment I'm able to make. Which isn't a strength of either portfolio in my view.

Tony Egan
12-02-2006, 08:52 AM
I think there is a bit of magic in the moment caught by Gedney with each of the girls standing with one foot on their knee. Looking through the other links I prefer Gedney's work. Stronger compositions and more of an indirect gaze on the world which I like better.

David H. Bebbington
12-02-2006, 10:02 AM
I find the "photographer's being exploitative" a tired argument. Are you suggesting that they should not have made these photographs? Can photographers ever approach a difficult or sensitive subject matter without being accused of exploiting it?

And, really, aren't we always exploiting what we photograph? Including the landscape?

If you find these photographs banal... why?

The argument may be tired to you, possibly not to the people being exploited! As I made very clear in my last posting, I am not saying that these pictures should not have been made, I simply cannot identify the photographers' motives and am therefore suspicious of these. Are the photographers, for example, comfortable middle-class types who are saying "Look at these quaint lower life forms, they have dirty faces and ugly houses, aren't you glad you're not like them?" You ask "Can photographers ever approach a difficult or sensitive subject matter without being accused of exploiting it?" The answer is yes, but there is a (usually justified) presumption of exploitation unless the photographer can demonstrate that he/she has a loftier motive, and I don't see one here. Particularly in the case of the picture of the two girls and the truck, I see a yawn-inducing superficial cliché which I have seen 1,000 times before. The interior view is at first glance more interesting, but the pose is suspiciously formal, leading me to ask "Am I gaining an insight here into some truth about the subjects or merely seeing a record of the photographer's preconceptions?" As to whether the landscape is being exploited in photographs - don't make me laugh!

Jim Chinn
12-02-2006, 10:11 AM
I find the "photographer's being exploitative" a tired argument. Are you suggesting that they should not have made these photographs? Can photographers ever approach a difficult or sensitive subject matter without being accused of exploiting it?

And, really, aren't we always exploiting what we photograph? Including the landscape?

If you find these photographs banal... why?

Thanks for the thread Suzanne. I agree that it is far to easy to simply say a photographer is being exploitive then to investigate and engage his work.

Here are a few thoughts.

I don't know about Gedney's background but Adams grew up in Appalachia and knows the people, the culture and the history. As far as the poverty, these folks have been exploited by the government and corporations for generations as cheap expendable labor and cannon fodder for the military. But poverty is relative. I know families who live in $500,000 homes with professional careers who live the most vacant and banal existences you could imagine. All their money and college degrees do not keep their marriages together or keep their kids out of trouble.

I don't know if a late model pickup truck would be a mis-placed priority. Appalachia is rugged country with poor roads. Most of the folks Adams photograph either farm, have jobs or do both. You have to have transprotation and a pickup is the best tool in that area.

While poverty is always present in Adams images, there is also present a sense of family and community, especially when his work is viewed as a whole.

Gedney's work can easily be seen as that of an outsider. Knowing Adams, background it is easy to see how he is able to get such intimate portraits. I like Adams photographs simply because they are "richer" in information. The subjects in his images look directly into the lens, and thus force you to engage their gaze for a few moments.

12-02-2006, 10:55 AM
A good pair of 'graphs to consider (and thank you, Suzanne, for the thread).

I've done a lot of thinking lately about the purpose of my own work which is as far from Adams and Gedney as you can get. My stuff is patently intended as wall fodder, and that will be it's end use although that wasn't why I made it. But, this kind of photography is the stuff of books and each 'graph seems to need to belong to a series that illustrates a story that could be supplemented with prose. The question for me is whether I want to be told that story in the first place, or yet again.

I much prefer Gedney's image. It is indeed well composed and suffused with the same light that would fill a mansion room inhabited by idle debs, and that kind of counterpoint is interesting. I enjoy viewing it...it's aesthetically rich. Adam's shot...well...it's not for me, thank you. It entertains a larger, possibly depressing story that I just don't need to be retold and doesn't offer much that's visually compelling. However if I were more curious about these kids, it'd be just the thing to pull me in. But, I'd want the whole book, not just the cover.

Bill Mitchell
12-02-2006, 11:50 AM
After reading the posts on this thread, I realized that I'd not commented on the images themselves, but only made generalizations about the ouvere of the photographers.
The images are so different that at first it's difficult to compare them. But the common element is the little girls. Are they being shown as the principal subjects of the compositions, or only as adjunct elements to establish their relation to their enviroment?
In the Gedney photograph, the only hint is that bare light bulb. Without it the image might just as well (or better) be cropped to show the girls in their relaxed and comfortable hen-session. People will be people, and kids will be kids, regardless of their circumstance. Gedney has nicely and thoughtfully transcended that slice of "decisive moment" presentation. If it was an intentional inclusion then it is very impressive, but my gut feeling is that it just happened to be included because he had a wide-angle lens on his camera.
Adams presentation is somewhat more puzzling about what does it mean. I think that there is little or no intention to comment on relating the girls to the environment. It is intended only as a static portrait of them, and as such, taken out of context has, in itself, little interest. However, taken as only one element of Adams' deliberate style of work (with this family), it becomes the stronger of the two.

12-02-2006, 01:48 PM
Thanks for the thread, Suzanne, these two photographers are both new to me.

The question you ask about their different approaches is very interesting, but a very difficult one to answer. It's almost like comparing photojournalism with portraiture, Although there are cross-overs of course, the approach is so different.

I find it interesting that it's Adams, who was photographing his own community, who used the more deliberate style. Maybe he was able to photograph more formally whereas for an outsider this would have been a step too far. Interesting that the 'outsider', Gedney, chooses the more 'fly-on-the-wall' technique, which is sometimes seen as more honest or at least less contrived, but I don't think this is necessarily true, it's the photographer that makes the difference, not the way they choose to photograph.

I think I need to look at their work a little more and think about it before coming up with any conclusions about which I prefer; the work of both is interesting, and my initial feeling is I like both in different ways. I think there is more sense of contact in the Adams images, and therefore possibly less of a potential sense of intrusion (but I'm talking abstractly, as I don't see intrusion in Gedney's photos, but just thinking how & why photos are sometimes interpreted as intrusive). On the other hand, the outsider can always see and therefore show certain things, that those who are closer cannot....It seems to me they very much compliment each other.

The idea of either work being 'exploitative' doesn't seem like it has to be an issue, unless the motives for doing the work were simply self-gain and fame and nothing else at all, no communication with the people or wanting to express something of their lives to others. I agree it's hard to say exploitation doesn't exist in any sort of photography, and that you can exploit a landscape, if you are not aware of your place within it, and your obligations towards it....It doesn't mean we censure ourselves, it means we think about our role and our relationship with whatever we are photographing. Anyway I don't get any sense of unease in this way from looking at their work, and yes, they both do seem to be compassionate.


12-02-2006, 04:18 PM
Once in Bayou La Batre, as I was waiting for the Blessing of the Fleet, I observed a number of quaint and (to me) strange events going on among the locals. Kids ten years old and younger smoking in plain sight, for instance. I took no pictures; I had no interest in photography at the time.

Kids smoking in front of their mothers-- it's not something I ever saw even among my then-to-be-wife's family in the Alabama hills (a rather primitive and poverty-ridden area; the lower Apalachians, and a target of LBJ's War on Poverty ((out houses, no runing water)) )when I first visited them 40 years ago. I had no interest in photography at the time, but the region, its people, and their condition affected me a lot. Had I taken snapshots back then, would I have been exploitative? Had I included the smoking Cajun kids with the bishop blessing the fleet, would that have been exploitative? How could an observer, looking at a snapshot or two, have devined my intentions? Would my intentions, whether selfish or altruistic, affect the viewer of my images; sully or enhance his experience?

Images are images, and they have their own voice. Even the Nazi's images of their concentration camp inmates shout volumes regardless of the photographers' intentions.

One can be skeptical of why another does anything, but to add this personal assessment to photographs seems to me absurd. Take from them what you will. Truth is appropriated by the perceiver according to Kierkegaard.

Just my 2 cents.


12-02-2006, 07:43 PM
I certainly do not understand why anyone would consider either of these shots, or the general intent of the photogs, to be exploitative.

To me, exploitation is taking something for one's own benefit without caring or concern for anyone or anything else. Both of these photogs give me the sense that the "care" about their subjects and the plight of poverty that much defines their lives.

Whether the shots "move" me is a different matter - but nothing about them calls me to question their motives.

David H. Bebbington
12-02-2006, 08:58 PM
I have a strong feeling that, with the demise of the great news magazines such as "Life", a powerful standard of excellence in documentary photography has been lost and, as a result, large bodies of so-called documentary photography are seeing the light of day whose authors in the past would have been urged to toss all their pictures into the garbage and either do the same with their cameras or else make a great deal more mental effort in their work. I cannot count the number of "documentary" portfolios I have seen, both by student photographers and more experienced workers, which consist of subjects staring blankly full-face into the camera, thus only documenting the photographer's total failure to engage with them. Photographers of this kind should be urgently advised to study the work of, for example, W. Eugene Smith before exposing a single frame more.

In the case of the two present photographers, if Adams is photographing his own people and the example shown is the result of a lengthy project, the only conclusion which comes to my mind is that he is such a poor and untalented photographer that he should probably quit forever - the picture posted looks like the first frame exposed by a raw college student who just got off the bus. As regards Gedney, there is at least an attempt at a personal viewpoint, but I feel the qualities offered by the (presumably) large-format camera used are acting more as a barrier than as a means of engaging with and revealing insights into the subjects.



Alex Hawley
12-02-2006, 08:58 PM
Visually, I like the Gedney better than the Adams, as far as this pair is concerned. This is simply because Gedney's has more depth and a better visual composition. Both portray a feeling of respect for the subjects.

I certainly do not understand why anyone would consider either of these shots, or the general intent of the photogs, to be exploitative.

I generally agree with George on the subject of the photographer's intent. However, some of the previous comments give clues as to where the exploitation may start. I will just say that the exploitaiton starts by viewers making rather harsh assumptions or judgements about the subjects just because the subjects may not live according to the viewer's standards. Where's the poverty? Just because a young girl is barefoot and has bruised shins? Just because there is a bare bulb in the ceiling fixture as opposed to fancy chandelier? Call me blind but I don't see it. Despite many definitions available, poverty is relative thing. What you are seeing is an area that is less prosperous than others may be at the moment, not necessarily one that is "bound in poverty".