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The True Meaning of Pictures: Shelby Lee Adams' Appalachia
The True Meaning of Pictures Shelby Lee Adams' Appalachia
Actors: Shelby Lee Adams, Chad Baker, Donnie Benton, Burley Childers, Homer Childers
Director: Jennifer Baichwal
Genres: Television, Educational, Documentary
NR     2003     1hr 15min

An audience favorite at Sundance, THE TRUE MEANING OF PICTURES is an introduction to the work of renowned photographer Shelby Lee Adams. Born in Eastern Kentucky, Adams has devoted 30 years of his life to visiting and maki...  more »


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Movie Details

Actors: Shelby Lee Adams, Chad Baker, Donnie Benton, Burley Childers, Homer Childers
Director: Jennifer Baichwal
Creators: Nick de Pencier, Jennifer Baichwal, David Wharnsby
Genres: Television, Educational, Documentary
Sub-Genres: Television, Educational, Biography, History, Art & Artists
Format: DVD - Color
DVD Release Date: 11/25/2003
Release Year: 2003
Run Time: 1hr 15min
Screens: Color
Number of Discs: 1
SwapaDVD Credits: 1
Total Copies: 0
Members Wishing: 1
Edition: Box set
MPAA Rating: NR (Not Rated)
Languages: English

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Movie Reviews

Haunting and Compelling
James R. Mckinley | San Diego, CA USA | 08/08/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)

"This documentary is, at times, poignant, haunting, and eerily compelling. It is also, at times, graphic and disturbing. Photographer Shelby Lee Adams' representation of rural Appalachian life the film contains both a critique, and a defense, of Adams' methodology. Because Adams himself grew up in Appalachia, the viewers are afforded access to an astonishing and often uncomfortable level of intimacy with the subjects. We learn the stories behind the pictures of the "holler dwellers", the people who live in virtual isolation up to 20 miles down dead end dirt roads in rural Kentucky hollows. Adams unflinchingly takes us all the way to the end of the hollows where life becomes increasingly hardscrabble with every mile. The subjects' stories were, for me, alternately depressing and uplifting. The subjects themselves run the gamut from pitiful to stoically dignified, and despite their individual circumstances, they are as fearless to reveal themselves to the viewer through the camera's lens as Adams is to show Appalachian life as he sees it. The documentary is difficult to watch at times. Ultimately, it is left up to the viewer to reach his or her own conclusion as to Adams' motivations. A fascinating and difficult to watch look at a rapidly vanishing American sub-culture."
Definitely worth watching for Appalachian scholars
Michael Blankenship | Cape Canaveral, FL | 12/06/2004
(5 out of 5 stars)

"This film does a good job of presenting an unbiased examination of Adams' photography. If you are unfamiliar with his images, find some and examine them...some of them are almost haunting in the way they portray poverty in Appalachia. The problem, as most Appalachian scholars in the film see it, is that his photographs are often staged (completely) and can be seen as portraying a slanted/biased view of poor Appalachians as stereotypical hillbillies. I offer no conclusions on this issue; Adams says this was not his intent and that he's not responsible for his audience's interpretation. I have a hard time reconciling some of the staged shots as anything but exploitative, but I'd have to become more familiar with Adams' work to draw a solid conclusion. In any case, this film would be an excellent introduction to the idea of stereotypes in the region in a basic Appalachian Studies course. It offers several topics that could lead to course-long discussions that could serve as a foundation for an entire course."
A Fascinating Look Deep in the Holler
Wes W. Curtis | Louisville, KY USA | 01/19/2009
(5 out of 5 stars)

"As a photography instructor in Kentucky I am often presented with the dubious task of trying to explain to the outside world that yes, indeed, thoughtful, creative artists are born, raised, and work in our wonderfully unusual state. Shelby Lee Adams is a Kentucky born artist who has dared to venture into the deep recesses of our amazingly diverse state to show the world both our challenges of poverty and our seemingly incongruent capacity for hope and resilience. This absolutely compelling video has captivated several hundred of my current and former students of photography, leaving some of us speechless and others ready to engage in spirited discourse about Shelby's motives. I have watched this film so many times that I can almost recite it line by line and as such I have grown increasingly amazed at both its content and the brilliant editing that builds each story to a fascinating climax without any visible evidence of coercion or interference by the filmmaker. I have lived here in KY for over twenty years and I had never before seen footage of the snake handlers that he documents with such unabashed intimacy. His photographs of the lifestyles of the "holler dwellers" are beautifully evocative if sometimes a little hokey in their choreography and the critics make solid points in this regard. Other commentators, such as the infinitely luminous Mary Ellen Mark, speak with great reverence for Shelby's approach to his subjects. No matter what you might think about Shelby's work, this is a fabulously crafted piece of precision documentary, ripe with thoughtful insights and poignant statements from persons of every level of economic and social strata (and a few who have curiously migrated from one to another level). There are fascinating bits of archival video footage that take us right into the lives of many of the subjects who we see depicted in his stunning large format black and white prints. I have in my collection most of the Photography related films that are reviewed here and I am perplexed that this one has not received the overwhelmingly positive reviews it is due. "The True Meaning of Pictures" is every bit as candid, provocative, and compelling as "War Photographer", the brilliant film chronicling the work of James Nachtwey. If you are even the slightest bit interested in the culture of Appalachia and a photographer willing to show us a side that we might otherwise never see, this fine film will most certainly leave you with more mental fodder than you bargained for!