Shelby Lee Adams's work has been controversial since he first began photographing the Appalachian people in the 70s. Some critics said his images were frightful stereotypes of mountain people. Complicating this was a tension between the documentary look of his finished work and the process of posing his subjects. Adams intricately lights them, and speaks of them as set-pieces in his own inner drama, which has called up accusations of exploitation.But these things aren't likely to be said of his current show. And that's too bad.
At its best, Adams's work is potent, iconic. It brands itself onto the eye. His stylistic trademarks -- distortion at the edges of the frame, the exaggerated play between foreground and background -- give the dizzying sense of a psychologically complex narrative underlying it all, dealing with the grandeur and the humility of life.
But while his career has been built on decades-long photo essays of specific Appalachian families, this is a show of mostly new faces.
It's a younger generation that Adams knows less well. His subjects wear logos on their T-shirts. They stand before satellite dishes. The effect is more representative of America the poor than Appalachia in particular.
It becomes clear that what lent much of the urgency to his earlier work was his capturing of the final motions of a community truly isolated, an Appalachia steeped in the old ways and untouched by bland consumerism.
But here that blandness seems to leak into the work.
These are no longer people in crisis, in great danger or great love. And Adams seems, if not a little bored by them, then not sure why he's not more interested. He's simply looking at his subjects rather than spewing them forth.
Where he remains compelling is in his photographs of young teenage girls. They are quiet -- confrontational in a more subtle way.
We're spectators here to a dynamic between photographer and subject that's erotic and skeptical and compelling in its complexity.
SHELBY LEE ADAMS at Stephen Bulger Gallery (700 Queen West), to October 5. 416-504-0575. Rating: NNN