The roomful of photographs at the Yossi Milo Gallery in New York's Chelsea art district is haunting. In one, a shirtless boy, bristle-headed and fine-featured, stares out at the camera from a hardscrabble clapboard wall, holding a giant chicken. In another, a family crowds around a flash-lit trailer home, band-aids on the men's faces, dogs cowering under tables.
Both images are included in a new exhibit of about 50 photographs by Shelby Lee Adams, simultaneously showing at the Fahey/Klein Gallery in Los Angeles and designed to accompany the release of his new book, "Appalachian Lives" (University Press of Mississippi).
The book is the third in a series that captures poor families in rural Eastern Kentucky. A decade in the making, the book has put Adams at the center of an ongoing controversy - as notable as those that have surrounded such photographers as Robert Mapplethorpe, Jock Sturges, and Sally Mann. But unlike their evocations of teen abuse and questionable use of family trust, Adams' work has drawn criticism for playing too freely with class stereotypes and making fun of his subjects. Yet Adams points out that his subjects approve of whatever he chooses to print.
Adams uses a large-format camera to capture the archetypes of the Appalachia where he grew up in Hazard, Ky. During those years, the region became a virtual buzzword for rural American poverty. But by setting up his situations very carefully, often in re-created versions of real-life situations, Adams has drawn charges of messing with the truth.
The photographer spends three to four months each year in the "hollers," where his subjects have lived for generations. When he's completed a series of photos, he carefully prints them in his dark room in Pittsfield, Mass.
"I've worked with many of my subjects for 30 years. They work with me to get these photos," Adams says from his home in the Berkshire Mountains. "I'm not trying to 'de-flatter' anyone, but neither am I trying to romanticize. People just assume that my subjects don't know what I'm doing, which says more about the way our culture makes assumptions than [about] my work."
And the charges that he makes - or allows - his subjects to look unheroic, even stupid?
"My work is subjective, creative, and personal," Adams says, noting that his photographs are as much an exploration of his own mixed feelings toward his childhood and his parents' messy divorce as a study of his subjects' lives.
"My work has been an artist's search for a deeper understanding of my heritage and myself, using photography as a medium and the Appalachian people as collaborators with their own desires to communicate," he writes in the introduction to his second book, "Appalachian Legacy," released five years ago. "I hope my photographs confront viewers, reminding them of their own vulnerability and humanity. I hope, too, that viewers will see in these photographs something of the abiding strength and resourcefulness and dignity of the mountain people."
Adams is himself the subject of a Canadian documentary, "The True Meaning of Pictures: Shelby Lee Adams' Appalachia," directed by Jennifer Baichwal. The 75-minute work, which is making the film festival and art-house theatrical circuits, sets up an argument between Adams's defenders in the fine-art photography world against Southern academics and several journalists who question his methods.
"I've been faulted for buying the pig that was slaughtered for one photo, and for getting involved in my subjects' lives. But that's because I'm doing art here, not journalism," says Adams. "I ask how a person wants his picture taken and where they'd like it taken," he adds.
Often, the choice of a setting, the key to what he calls his "environmental portraiture," ends up being a dark place that needs his lighting touch. As a result, he's an expert with flashes and strobes.
Adams explains how he's working a special brand of fiction, almost like William Faulkner's Southern Gothic novels.
"I see these Appalachian families, who know what I've come from, as a sort of metaphor. I search them out as a kind of surrogate replacement for the family I'd lost, or perhaps never had," Adams adds. "I am playing the edges, trying to show how hard life can be. I'm trying to broaden an acceptance of what humanity embraces. I can't discriminate between a drunk and a saint."
• Shelby Lee Adams's work is at the Fahey/Klein Gallery in Los Angeles through Oct. 18.