â€œThis is the problem where we all get caught; we view photographs and make them with our agendas, personal histories, stereotypes and biases.â€
-Shelby Lee Adams
Berthie Napier looks into the camera lens and a silent story unfolds. Those eyes! Trying not to gaze into them is impossible. Velvet steel, defiant, measuring. Her arthritic knuckles cradle a carved pipe like a well used pacifier. Behind her sits John, her husband. He is dressed for field workâ€”baseball cap, coveralls, plain cotton shirt. It looks like the years of toil have sapped much of his strength, but none of his dignity. Johnâ€™s facial expression seems amused and impish, which is in stark contrast to Berthieâ€™s fierceness. The wall and ceiling behind the couple are covered with newspaper, but it is hard to determine much else about the environment. The photograph is telling a story. But the â€œhappily ever afterâ€ ending seems to be in question.
Shelby Lee Adams is a photographer who is searching. When he tells his stories through photographs he is recreating a past life that hangs in wispy memories. More often than not, those memories are dark and contain painful images. Perhaps he is trying to reconstruct a world he wishes to understand, but remains out of reach. Perhaps he wants the viewer to decide what criteria equates to a good life. Berthieâ€™s photograph is but one in a series of Appalachian life recreations caught somewhere between pain and celebration, truth and fiction.
Photographs are powerful. As women we often try to avoid them, fearing the image coming through the camera lens will reveal something alien to who we believe we are. I keep coming back to a conversation I had with my friend, Claudia. She told me that it wasn’t until after her mother’s death that she realized there were few photographs of her mother in the albums. Her mom had successfully avoided being in family shots over the years, and now it was too late. I’m guessing many of us can say the same thing.
I don’t recall my mom being excessively camera shy, but my grandmother was. In fact, many of the photographs I do have of Grandma “later in life” have her face scribbled out via a ballpoint pen. Grandma used to grouse that she hated all the wrinkles that magically appeared over the years, and rather than let the photograph represent who she was, she destroyed it. How I wish I could have more tangible evidence of her aging path through pictures. Those wrinkles she hated are finding their way onto my face through laughter, worry, and awe. Her story lends beauty and texture to mine. I am a part of her, and she of me. Why is that distasteful to our critical eyes?
How do you feel about your photograph being taken? If you don’t like the experience, when did that start? Have you asked yourself who it is you want to look like…for instance, twenty year-old you? Why? Who do you feel judges you more severely than you? I’d love to hear more about this from you!
For more about Shelby Lee Adams, visit his blog at:
Shelby Lee Adams