It is said that truth is stranger than fiction, and Shelby Lee Adams' Modern Appalachia show at Bassetti offers evidence of that truism. The subjects of his black-and-white photos, poor rural white folks -- actually, hillbillies -- have long inspired cartoon characters such as Snuffy Smith and L'il Abner as well as legends about the feuding Hatfields and McCoys, and Adams' images at first seem to reinforce most negative stereotypes of rural Appalachia. Yet they also reveal no small measure of empathy.
If dignity and beauty are in scant supply, it is also clear that Adams enjoys his subjects' trust, perhaps because he too is a native of this remote Kentucky hill region, and perhaps because documenting its rustic inhabitants has become his life's mission, pursued over decades. Roy With His Sister and New Bride depicts a guy with a T-shirt stretched over his bulging beer belly, flanked by two girls whose maturity might best be described as pubescent. The barely visible ring on the finger of the emaciated blond waif suggest that she is the bride, but her tender age, and the blank stares with which all three confront the camera, are unsettling. The photo is dated 1980, but later images suggest that the pace of change proceeds slowly up in the hills.
Of course, cable and satellite television have come to even such remote hamlets as Hazzard and Hooterville, spreading the work of the devil, although it seems the devil may have already had his hands full, anyway. Not one to take chances, Hort Collins, whose images are enlivened by his delirious grin, preaches fiery sermons at his Hooterville Little Church, conveniently located at his home. Clearly in need of redemption are the Napiers, down the road, a clan considered lower caste even in those parts. Mostly harmless, if slow, the Napiers are thought to be overly fond of alcohol, an all-too-common vice. Adams' The Hog Killing, shows the Napier clan posing proudly with a gutted hog hanging from a rickety scaffold. Its bloody, severed head overflows a tin pan at the feet of patriarch John Napier, who clutches a huge, double-edged axe. On his face is yet another delirious grin, in stark contrast to the poker-faced family matriarch, Berthie, at his side. Still wearing her cigar-store Indian expression, Berthie is seen smoking her pipe in another nearby image.
What are we to make of all this? Did Adams sensationalize his subjects? Probably not, though many seem to have been chosen for their quirkiness in contrast to the social documentary approaches of a Cartier Bresson or Dorothea Lange -- approaches approximated in portraits such as Coal Miner and Lee Hall, Retired Miner, two of the show's most arresting images. If the grotesquerie of the others suggests a Diane Arbus in Dogpatch, a more apt comparison might be with Southern fiction, for these are very personal and disturbingly incisive portraits of a people and a region long insulated from the prying eyes of the outside world. Great stuff.
A very different vision appears in the work of Czech photographer Jan Saudek at A Gallery for Fine Photography. Picaresque tales are implicit in works like The Mandolin Lesson, in which a young lady music student succumbs to the authoritative charms of her female instructor. Both are beautiful and mostly naked, and it might be rather cliched but for the intricacy of the ambience, a richly ironic patina that harks to the novels of Milan Kundera, among others. Even so, Saudek will grasp at any excuse to expose tender flesh whenever possible. Young Mother and Her Mother Take Care of Baby is a diptych. In the first image, a curvaceous young woman, seen from the rear, bends over to tend her baby, actually a doll in an antique stroller. She wears a mini and nothing beneath it, so little is left to the imagination. In the next picture an older, grotesquely fat and completely nude woman repeats the same scene, her loose flesh hanging in folds. It's jarring, of course, yet it's hard to avoid the impression that it's only a matter of time before the daughter meets the same fate.
Sensational? Yes, but in Saudek's hands human foibles attain a good-humored timelessness that lends his images a whiff of eternity that carries them beyond the merely hormonal impulses of the moment.
- A timeless quality haunts Shelby Lee Adams' Roy With His Sister and New Bride, as it does the rest of the photographs of his native Kentucky in the Modern Appalachia exhibit at Bassetti.