Sunday, January 11, 2009

TOERIFC: The True Meaning of Pictures

[This post is prompted by The Oldest Established Really Important Film Club, which will be spotlighting a different blogger-selected film every month. This month's film was chosen by Marilyn of Ferdy On Films. Visit her site to see her thoughts on the film and to join the main discussion.]

Sometimes a piece of art, or an artist's body of work as a whole, will be as interesting for the questions it raises about the nature of art, of representation, of artistic intentionality, as for the artwork itself. This is definitely the case with the photos of Appalachian rural life taken by Shelby Lee Adams, the subject of Jennifer Baichwal's fascinating documentary The True Meaning of Pictures. To be sure, Adams' photos are enthralling in their own right. His photos document people who most of us would never otherwise see, people completely forgotten by the rest of society, their dilapidated homes located in isolated, lonely territory. They live in abject poverty, their faces living caricatures of the rural poor, the kind of people who are dismissed as "rednecks" or "hillbillies" by city-dwellers. Adams was born and grew up in this milieu, not in total poverty — he describes his childhood as "middle class for Appalachia" — but close enough to it to know that it exists, to know what it looks like.

His photos of these people, who he spends a great deal of time with, are interesting contradictions between subject matter and form. On the one hand, the people he's documenting are utterly downtrodden: they live in squalor, their houses built seemingly from whatever scraps of wood and metal they can find and sometimes papered inside with newsprint, their clothes ragged and dirty. And yet Adams' photos of them are disarmingly beautiful, with a profound formal and even theatrical quality. They are obviously staged and artificially posed, with Adams arranging his subjects into tight, formally interesting group compositions. The photos are beautifully lit, formally pristine documents of people whose lives are anything but pristine.

For this reason, Adams' photos have earned a great deal of controversy in the art world, which tends to view these strange pictures with equal parts admiration and suspicion. Baichwal's documentary does not take sides in the debate over Adams' art: she remains objective, often alternating between opposing viewpoints, allowing the argument to play out in front of her camera with all its thorny, complex issues. Foremost among these is the question of whether Adams is simply feeding into existing stereotypes — like the violent, inbred hillbilly of Hollywood legends like Deliverance — or if he is trying to document these people as they genuinely are. It's easy enough to understand both viewpoints, and in some ways Adams' photographs are juggling these two tendencies, simultaneously engaging with stereotypes and trying to find the real people whose faces and lives in a sense embody those stereotypical characters. Part of the issue here is the relationship between the artist's intention and the audience's reaction. The documentary's implicit central question, never quite stated outright but nevertheless at the root of its inquiry, is what matters more: what the artist thinks he's doing, or what the audience viewing the art think it's doing. And if it's the latter, which audience?

Indeed, Adams' photos inevitably bring up the subject of different audiences appreciating art in different ways. What's interesting about Adams is that, though he is often accused of exploiting or manipulating the subjects of his photos, portraying them in unflattering or stereotypical ways, by and large the people he actually photographs have no problems with his pictures, and indeed they love them and are completely comfortable with Adams himself. He is accepted as an insider, as one of them, and Baichwal includes a great deal of footage, much of it from Adams' own archives, of the photographer interacting with and spending time with the families he photographs. He considers them his friends, and the feeling seems to be mutual: he's viewed as a friend who comes over for barbecues and dinners, for trading old stories, and who just so happens to take some pictures of them as well. The film contrasts this impression of Adams with the views of several art critics who have varying degrees of reservations about this work. These critics wonder if Adams' work appears differently to audiences outside of the Appalachian communities that are being represented, if perhaps the average viewer of this photographs is in fact enjoying them simply because the images are so strange, so bizarre, so kitschy. One critic goes so far as to suggest that the actual Appalachian people do not have the visual vocabulary to understand that the photos are mocking them — he's careful to clarify his statement by saying that he doesn't mean to be patronizing, but he comes across that way nevertheless.

Still, the critics' objections to Adams' work do seem legitimate, though Adams himself is equally lucid and genuine in describing his desire to portray these people honestly and without politically correct censorship. Baichwal never lets either viewpoint get the upper hand, carefully alternating between different viewpoints, and letting the various people speak for themselves. The critics sometimes come across as smarmy and elitist, and Adams sometimes seems to miss the implications of his own work, but on the whole everyone in the film (including the Appalachian residents themselves) is given a chance to express themselves and to make their perspective clear. The result is a fair representation of an enormously complex controversy, one that perhaps cannot be satisfactorily resolved. Does it matter that Adams genuinely wants to document honest reality if the photos sometimes contribute to maintaining stereotypes rather than destroying them? Is Adams actually a documentarian, or is he trying to write his own inner emotions onto tableaux staged with real people? Does everyone see the same thing when they look at a photo? Baichwal wants her audience to walk away from the film asking these questions and many others, grappling with the nature of art and the role of morality in documentation and artistic expression.

There is however, one point on which I wish Baichwal had broken her objectivity in order to confront it directly. One of the most fascinating aspects of the film is one that goes almost completely uncommented-upon: the transformations in Adams' personality, diction, and attitude when he is with his Appalachian subjects as opposed to being interviewed alone. In front of Baichwal's camera, he is soft-spoken, with clear, precise diction and an art-school vocabulary, lucidly discussing his motivations and aesthetics in clean, nearly unaccented speech. When he is with the subjects of his photos, however, he lapses into the heavily accented, mumbling dialect that they themselves use. It's apparent that there are two sides to Adams, and that he — consciously or unconsciously — seeks to fit in whether he's in rural Appalachia or in more of an art world setting. Baichwal never calls him on it, never asks him to speak about how he changes himself in accord with his surroundings, and that's a shame. In light of the film's questions about the artist's intent and the effect of his work, it seems like it would have been a fruitful line of inquiry.

For the most part, though, Baichwal's documentary is an admirable attempt to engage with this controversial artist, his rich but often conflicted artwork, and the people who form his living subject. The film suggests great depths, dealing with complex abstract ideas through its concrete subject, and when its brief running time has passed, it leaves many questions and ideas hanging in the air, demanding they be considered.

1 comment:

Bob Turnbull said...

Hi Ed,

I loved this film because of all those hanging questions it leaves...I agree that it would've been interesting to delve into Adams a bit more (e.g. his transformation), but I like seeing the film as more of a study of art and its context. I thought about that subject (in many different ways) for weeks after seeing the film (which was Spring of 2008) and it still pops up occasionally.

I mentioned over in the comments at Marilyn's blog that since the vast majority of the many comments (many, many comments...) were about Adams rather than Baichwal that it was a good sign about how effective the film was.