Simply said, he’s the real deal! Whether you see Shelby Lee Adams’ photography as humanist portraiture or suspect he’s just another urban camera jockey trolling for poverty porn in the hollers of Eastern Kentucky, certain facts can’t be denied. He is one of them; he was born in Hazzard, Kentucky, and grew up in a holler of Johnson’s Fork in Lechter County. And he has dedicated his life to recording an ever-evolving photographic portrait of Appalachian families — their history, their music, their births and their deaths.
Adams did not grow up in the throes of poverty, but as a young man he witnessed the vulnerability of the poor while tagging along as his uncle, a doctor, tended the sick and delivered babies among the far-flung people of his community. Over the years, while visiting and photographing families like the Napiers, Adams has forged bonds with more than a hundred families in seven counties.
His photographs have been published in four books. The most recent, Salt and Truth, comprises 80 portraits, mainly single or dual figures looking directly into camera with an unabashed presence far removed from the ironic self-awareness of the selfie generation.
Though Adams’ earlier books were also deeply intimate with their subjects, they often featured larger family groupings in carefully posed but seemingly spontaneous moments. An example is the photograph Leddie and Children, featuring a woman and her nine children scattered casually but carefully across the frame as if in a 19th century plein air French painting.
In this earlier work, Adams often employed multiple strobe flash units, often at twilight. You can see this light source more clearly with the two girls in the photo above, the light sourced from frame left. In his most recent photographs, there is a distillation of the image that, while not totally rejecting his trademark formalism, invites a direct, empathic engagement with the subject. It may be formally similar to August Sander’s encyclopedic catalog of German society in the 1920s, Face of Our Time, but it has none of the generalized typology of Sander’s work. Adams’ subjects exhibit a near universal sense of openness, or, as he puts it: “This is what I am, all that I am.”
“The Roots of Inspiration,” the autobiographical essay with which Adams introduces Salt and Truth, should appease the insistent self-styled guardians of photographic aesthetic criteria, critics like the late Susan Sontag, who long decried photos of war, tragedy and Third World poverty as exploitation. In fact, Adams’ essay alone makes Salt and Truth worth purchasing. Some of the attacks on his work have gone beyond criticism, verging on distasteful ad hominem challenges to his intent. (I have never met Adams, but Carol and I have collected his work since before the publication of his first book, Appalachian Portraits, in 1993, and find him to be among the very best "American" photographers.)
In his essay, Adams talks about his efforts to remove the “poverty filter,” a perspective many viewers betray when they equate his work with clichéd material like The Dukes of Hazzard or The Beverly Hillbillies. J.D. Vance’s recent best-selling autobiography, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, should disabuse us of any rush-to-judgment thoughts of the white racism and violence that has recently befouled our streets.
You may not find racial or ethnic “diversity” in Adams’ portraits, but if you look with open eyes, you will find that same sense of vulnerable and conflicted humanity that he sees through his viewfinder.
In a 13-minute video that was recorded in 1993, Adams explains how his photographs are collaborations between photographer and subject. The copy explains:
Shelby Lee Adams is known for his photographic work made in his native land of Eastern Kentucky. Some of his relationships with his subjects now span decades. In 1993, Shelby made an hour [long] Super-VHS video with his friend Hort Collins. Newly discovered in the fall of 2015, he now has made this tape into a digital video program. The program consists of Hort playing the mandolin as background music and he sings a country hymn, featured with Shelby’s Polaroids that demonstrate his working mythology and support from the Polaroid Corporation, with other photographs made in the Hooterville community, where Hort resided. “The Brothers Praying,” 1993, is featured. Hort with his brother Henry are the subjects. Their mother, Mimi, is in the background. This photograph is one of Shelby’s iconic images, with many additional photographs of other regional musicians included.
Religious iconography is often present on the background walls in Adams’ photographs, testimony to the bedrock Christianity that defines the lives of many Appalachians. One of the fascinating stories Adams tells of his childhood and of his own awakening to the world of art focuses on the monthly visit of nuns to his elementary school:
They brought big panels covered in cloth that they placed against the blackboards, and used felt figures on them to illustrate, as they told us the most compelling stories … After the Bible lessons they introduced us to art pictures. When the teacher showed the sisters my drawings, they expressed interest and gave me reproductions of Jean-François Millet. To this day I still have some of them … It was invaluable to see the serious faces of the farmers who were so much like my grandparents.
Indeed, there is a painterly presence in many of Adams’ images — the very quality that is offensive to his critics. It’s as though they demand that the aesthetic quality of his work dare not rise above the humble subject matter. While deriding aesthetic qualities in conflict photography or poverty photography, these same critics extol the same artistry in the graphic arts.
At the back of Salt and Truth, Adams discusses his business, Trust, which devotes proceeds from his work to “engage children and students with artistic talent” who may escape the limits of their educational upbringing, much as Vance was able to escape his.
In 2003, a feature documentary about Adams and his work, The True Meaning of Pictures, was released, but it is incredibly difficult to find and expensive to purchase. However, it can be seen on Vimeo for a modest price.
Here is the trailer:
And here is an excerpt:
One of the more interesting aspects of the documentary — in addition to Adams’ narration and our introduction to the Napier family — are the ex cathedra pronouncements of photography critics that seem to inflame the controversy surrounding Adams’ work.
This feature-length film seeks to explore problems of representation by examining Adams' photographs and getting to know the people behind them. There are various eminent critics and photographers who discuss and argue about his work, debating the issues and analyzing specific photographs. Intercut with this are the stories of a number of Adams' most significant subjects. There's the Napier family from Beehive, who lost 10 children to violent deaths and live without running water, heat, plumbing or electricity. There are the followers of the Holiness religion, who drink strychnine and handle rattlesnakes to prove their faith in God. There's the Childers family, who have struggled for years to keep three developmentally challenged kids at home.
Until recently, Adams photographed only on film with his 4x5 tripod camera, and he employed a Polaroid pack to evaluate his compositions and light. He always gave his subjects one of the Polaroids until he could return with silver prints that he presented to them as gifts. Like many photographers, Adams has adapted to the realities of the digital era. Has some of the poetry of “celluloid” been lost? It’s hard to know.
Looking at the casual, even hodgepodge color digital camerawork of his recent videos, one can’t help but ask the question.
Janet Cardiff, Thomas Tallis and Spem in Alium