The True Meaning of Photos was a very intriguing documentary that caused my viewpoints and opinions of the film shift as it moved forward. Not being familiar with Shelby Lee Adams’ work, the slideshow in the beginning captured my attention immediately. The portraits were stunning. As the movie progressed, I don’t think I ever changed my mind that these pictures were indeed stunning, but I think that my view of the photographer’s intentions, meaning, and results changed multiple times.
As many people in the film mentioned, Adams’ portraits of Appalachia contain a very gothic feel that sends stereotypes of small southern town flooding back to me. This is partly to my unfamiliarity with the subject and also my limited exposure to these people through unreliable sources. This however was one of my first main thought shifts. Perhaps Adams was only making what he thought were honest, beautiful portraits. And giving them to the families and having them love and accept them is a wonderful thing.
However, I think that when showing these portraits to the general public, it is important to consider who that audience is and what preconceived notions they possess. I think that sometimes truth can be expressed simply through actions rather than through teaching, but I am not certain that Adams’ portraits possess a quality that allows for the skipping of the teaching step.
Also, there was something that I found very interesting in Adams’ work. He spoke of himself as a documentary photographer. Yet, all of his pictures are posed. This does not disqualify him as a documentary photographer and I actually view myself as taking a similar approach to documentary. But what struck me about this was the way he explained it. Adams’ says that he has thousands of photographs that he takes for the family and gives to them.
He then goes on to say that after he takes these photographs, he asks the family if he can take some pictures for himself. Not just if he can take some portraits of a certain person, but also if he can set up specific situations. This aspect makes me wonder how close he is to fine art rather than documentary work.
I think another thing that I wondered about and haven’t come to a conclusion about is what is going on in the mind of Adams. By the limited interviews I listened to during the film, it seems that he does care about his subjects and does want to create beautiful photographs of them. But he also talks about the fact that he does not like boundaries or rules. He likes to be free to do whatever he likes with his photography.
I think this is somewhat troublesome to me in a way that I have not yet fully processed. I think that having strong values and guidelines on the creation of photographs is important. It should go beyond just seeing something interesting like a torn screen door and just automatically deciding that since it draws your attention it should automatically be used. Or the subject wanted the picture, so it should automatically be shown to the public with no real context in which to place it.
There were so many things that I thought about during this film. It has given me a lot to think about in my own photography as I do appreciate Adams’ work in certain aspects and find it similar to what I would like to develop into.
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