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True Meaning of Pictures

A movie directed by Jennifer Baichwal

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Power House Documentary

  • Sep 4, 2004
Pros: Hard Hitting, Fascinating

Cons: Sad, focuses on the harsh realities of rural living

The Bottom Line: Staged Photos or Realism? You decide - both arguments have merit. Well done, great subject matter.

Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie''s plot.

Shelby Lee Adams is a controversial photographer and seemingly a man on a mission!

This DVD times at 71 minutes and packs a whallop. Shelby Adams is a man born and raised in rural Kentucky, and has spent his lifetime taking photos of family life in the Appalachians. His specialty highlights poor people and families of Appalachia. Perhaps you have heard of the stereotyped names such as "white trash", "rednecks" "hillbillies", and other perjorative terms?

His photos are stark and in black and white and vividly capture the lives of people in a land that time seemingly forgot. His books Applachian Legacy is stunning and this movie delves into the hows and why's of the book.

The twist is that Adams doesn't necessarily document only what he sees. Many of the photos are deliberately posed which add realism but some feel a not so subtle put down. Shelby defends his work as documenting the reality of life in that region, and states that he's drawn to photograph those who are in pain and suffer.

In a word "controversial" is the best description for this subject matter and documentary. Take a vist in one of the many "hollers" that are visited. Sit a spell with some serpent handlers as they chug strychnine and dance with snakes. Visit with folks as they host a front parlor funeral and the rituals they perform. Listen to Granny as she smokes her pipe and talks about working in the fields from sun up to sun down like a man.

The film director does give equal time to detractors as well as letting Adams defend himself. Some people just don't get it while mostly the Applachian folks don't mind a bit. They do not feel exploted and rather enjoy the attention. The characters do portray a dignity that is genuine. They exhist harmoniously with their beautiful surroundings and don't bother anyone.

The debate is whether Adams is a documentarian or an artist setting up shots to give the most impact. While true that the subjects he photographs generally have some physical or mental impairment, they are also fascinating characters.

How does Shelby differ from others such as Dianne Arbus? I tend to view both in the same light. They are artists who draw inspiration from very unusual people.

The sad reality is that Appalachian people are removed from society and marginalized. They have no access to education, medical care, social welfare programs and barely eek out a living doing what they can. Many do not have indoor plumbing or electricity. Most have no future other than leaving.

As a result many of the characters that Shelby photographs do not live very long, one was bitten by a snake and died, one died in child birth, another was run over by a train and on and on. Of the originaly family of 14, there are 4 left by the time the film ends.

A good solid look at another kind of American Life.


Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Good for Groups
Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children Age 13 and Older

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A working professional, partner and mother.      I am a tech gadget loving person who enjoys saving time and money in my daily life.      I review computer products, … more
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About this movie


Canadian filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal, director of the acclaimed Paul Bowles documentary LET IT COME DOWN, trains her eye on another artist of uncompromising vision in her film THE TRUE MEANING OF PICTURES. For over 30 years, Shelby Lee Adams has been photographing the impoverished mountain dwellers of his native eastern Kentucky, earning critical acclaim for his stark black-and-white portraits of Appalachian life--from families who live without plumbing or electricity to Pentecostal sects whose members drink strychnine and handle rattlesnakes during religious ceremonies. But Adams' work has also garnered a fair share of controversy: critics charge that his photographs exploit their subjects, perpetuate stereotypes about the rural poor, or are sometimes staged by Adams for greater effect. Baichwal's provocative documentary examines these issues and raises complex moral questions about the very nature of art through interviews with Adams' admirers and detractors, samples of his extraordinary work, and foot...
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Director: Jennifer Baichwal
Release Date: 2002
MPAA Rating: Unrated
DVD Release Date: New Video Group, Inc. (November 25, 2003)
Runtime: 1hr 11min
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