by Mark Sean Orr - January 11, 2011
Eagle's Nest, '04
My introduction to the fine art photography of Kentucky born Shelby Lee Adams was a
documentary film I watched on Ovation TV. "The True Meaning of Pictures" (directed by
Jennifer Baichwal) shocked, saddened and amazed me. Here were photographs of
modest people living in small isolated houses in the hills (hollers) of eastern Kentucky.
People who appeared to be living in the past. Their homes were diminutive with none of
the luxuries that we take for granted today. Walls were covered (papered) with actual
newspapers and store advertisements...decor included plastic flowers, pictures of Jesus
and The Last Supper and family photos. The photos on the wall, not just your ordinary
school pictures and family portraits of mom, dad and children They showed the tired and
lined faces of grandparents and even great grandparents who watched over these families
from old wooden frames placed haphazardly, but lovingly throughout these homes. The
people in this place had a real and deep-rooted connection to the past.
Eagle's Nest, '08
Stories my grandmother told me of growing up in central Indiana in the early 1900's
quickly came to mind. Her grandfather brought his family from Kentucky to Indiana in the
late 1800's to find work. Jesse Thompson, her grandfather was born in Estill County,
Kentucky in 1818. It seemed the people that Adams was photographing lived much the
same as my grandmothers early years were lived as she had described them to me. It was
a hard life and men, women and children worked long hours..."from can see to can't see"
as my grandmother described it.
This guy Adams, I thought, was a time traveler.....who could step back and forth
between the comfortable city life in Pittsfield, Massachusetts where he resides in the
winter months to the past, in the mountains of Appalachia and fit right in at either place. In
fact he had never gone far from his Appalachian home. Pittsfield is no larger than Hazard,
Ky. and is near the Appalachian Trail. The trail runs through the county he lives in.....
Berkshire Co. Adams drives 860 miles to Ky., mostly along that trail.
There is much potential in the Appalachian area, they just haven't been given a fair
shake. In 1999 Bill Clinton visited Tyner, Kentucky where he made the following statement:
"I'm here to make a simple point. This is the time to bring more jobs and investment to
parts of the country that have not participated in this time of prosperity. Any work that can
be done by anybody in America can be done in Appalachia".
Since 1974 Adams has worked with a 4x5 view camera, a large camera mounted on
a tripod that he makes Polaroid's with, to share with his people immediately as he
photographs. It is a formal manner of working, but helps people become more
comfortable right away as they see how they look and what is included within the picture.
When Adams returns from each extended visit he gives out pictures to everyone from each
Most portrait photographers give their subjects a prop or put them in a setting that
artificially represents the subject's interest and life. In Adam's photos we are seeing the
real people in their natural surroundings doing what they do and what their families have
done for generations. The butchering of hogs, catfish hanging
on the barn door waiting to be cleaned, families gathered in the sitting room playing music
and telling stories.... all integral parts of these people's lives. Pictures they like.
Tammy with Catfish, '03
I decided to check this photographer out..the man whom one of his subjects referred
to as "the picture man".....first online on various websites where I found this statement by
Adams (on his website):
When I began my photography in the 70’s I thought sharing the photographs of the
people who were impaired and less fortunate would communicate best the need to
awaken compassion and the love of humanity everywhere. At that age, I wanted to
impact the fortunate and distant - into experiencing these faces finding their essential
deeper value because I’d grown up seeing cold indifference and cruel hypocrosy and
wanted change. More importantly, I had been moved and accepted with love by these
children from the heads of the hollers. If I could experience them with love so could
others. This was my beginning.
Shelby Lee Adams
Appalachia today is mixed economically, with millionaires from the coal industry living
in the same area. Within this culture now populated with Wal Marts, a modern hospital, a
local community college, mansions on the hill tops, four lane highways, fast food
restaurants, people driving Hummer's, Shelby drives to the head of the hollers to
photograph something else, what is disappearing, but still exists throughout.
Robbie and Tyler on Wrecker, '03
Also on Adams website is this description of why he is driven to photograph the
people of Appalachia:
It is the total inclusive spirit of the mountaineer living in the hollers that motivates
and interests me. The visual representation of this culture has never been witnessed
from inside. I don’t deny nor do I see poverty as a focus in my work; once the poverty
filter is removed a different world emerges. The culture is multi-layered in expressing the
fullness of life. Mountain people are more accepting of diverse representations of
themselves than the viewer might imagine because they know themselves and are
Shelby Lee Adams
Shithead the Pony and the Noble Family, '03
This last statement is particularly telling. Adams does want to show the rest of the
world the disparaging conditions these people live in, but he also wants to show their
culture. They are proud, hard-working people who are deeply devoted to family, religion,
music and legacy. The irony is that I think we who are looking in on their world are slightly
envious of their close-knit families and focus on the important things in life. The dynamics
of the American family have changed dramatically over the last century. No longer do most
families sit down at the supper table every evening, go to church on Sundays, gather on
the front porch to play music and spend most of their daily lives together. It's getting rarer
all the time to see generations of families living under the same roof or right next door to
each other. This part of their culture is a part of ours that has become lost.
I quickly decided that regardless of how Adams was able to get the masterful and
poignant shots of the people of Appalachia..... it mattered not. What he felt and what came
through in film was very real and very honest.
I was beginning to get a real grasp of what Adams was trying to accomplish with his
photographs and my admiration and respect was growing for him and his work.
James and Clapper, ' 06
On Adams' website I found an email address...so I wrote to him thinking how cool it
would be to hear his thoughts and ask him some questions...not really expecting an
answer from him at all.
I wrote the first email in April of 2010...just a brief message telling him how much I
enjoyed his work and would he maybe do an interview at some point. I received a reply the
next morning with the following:
"Consider this an open door" ...and so I did. We exchanged contact information, more
emails and Adams invited me to a party in Hazard, Kentucky to celebrate his just
announced 2010 Guggenheim Fellowship. I was unable to make it to the party but was
able to watch a video tape made of the festivities. In getting to know Adams through our
correspondence, I find him to be a caring and honest man and a great artist.
Girls in Onion Patch, '04
More recently I received word from Adams that he had made "the cover" (and a
lengthy interview by photographer and journalist Renee' Jacobs) for the first issue of the
new year (March, 2011 Issue 81) in B&W Magazine.....quite an honor!
In the Black & White Magazine article "Portraits from Appalachia", Jacobs travels to
Kentucky and speaks in depth with Adams about his childhood, schooling, family and
roots in Appalachia. There's an especially wonderful comment in the article when Jacobs
is interviewing Rachel Riddle, a long time friend of Adams and one who he has
photographed for 28 years. Riddle, speaking of Shelby's support over the years points
out:"He's not trying to make something that it aint. (He) makes it come out just like it ought
to be. I really appreciate everything he's ever done for me. He's like family. He's always
been that way. One of these days, I'll be part of history. Long after I'm gone, the
photographs will still be here".
published an article about Adams and his photography in March of 2010 titled "Capturing
Appalachia's 'Mountain People'". The Smithsonian article focused on one of Adams most
famous photos "Home Funeral". The photo was taken in 1990 at the funeral (country wake)
of the grandmother of Esther Renee Adams (nicknamed Nay Bug), named after her
grandmother. The wake held in the home lasted for days in 1990. Adams returned 18
years after taking the photo and visited with the family. Walter Holbrook, son of the
deceased woman said about the photograph "Home Funeral is “something I can show
my kids and maybe later on they can save to show their kids what kind of family they
"Home Funeral" 1990
That brings us to now......and this piece I'm writing for my website.
I have, over the last year...watched all the videos and read all the information I could find
about Adams and have decided that my initial perceptions about Adams and his work
were correct. Adams is a great photographer, a kind and caring man and his love of his
craft and of his subjects is genuine. He has a way of making one feel comfortable so that
they open up and tell their life stories as evidenced by the way they let him into their lives in
even the most intimate and private moments.
People feel comfortable and unguarded when talking with Adams.....another example is
this statement made by subject Berthie Napier in 1992 who told Adams about her family.
Napier speaks with Adams like he is an old and trusted friend...and he is that.
"Had sixteen children in my family-you wouldn't believe that, would you! Eight dead and
eight livin'! Lord, they drank and get out and get killed, and everything. You know, you
can't put sense on 'em. But when they was small, they mind me good, till they got to be
twenty-two or twenty-three. Now, Lord have mercy!"
Berthie With Pipe and John, '92
On Shelby's website you'll find these words of wisdom about "truth" by Cormac
McCarthy which I feel pretty much explain away any notion of Adam's photos not being
“The Stories get past on and the truth gets passed over. As the sayin goes. Which I
reckon some would take as meanin that the truth cant compete. But I don’t believe that. I
think that when the lies are told and forgotten the truth will be there yet. It don’t move
about from place to place and it dont change from time to time. You cant corrupt it any
more than you can salt salt. You cant corrupt it because that’s what it is. It’s the thing you’
re talking about. I’ve heard it compared to the rock-maybe in the bible-and I wouldn’t
disagree with that. But it’ll be here even when the rock is gone.”
To the reader:
The difference between Shelby Lee Adams and his critics is that Shelby is at home
with the people of Appalachia. He knows them and they know him. There is a comfort level
there...and a trust that's born of friendship. Adams relates to his subjects moreso than
most photographers. He has sat down at the supper table of his friends, they have
entertained him with their wonderful music, he shoots the breeze with them on slanted
porches just outside their humble homes and he has even attended family funerals. These
families have come to know him and his gentle nature and they welcome his visits.
Adams has been welcomed into each home and the community whereas most
photographers would not have been. I think this is the problem that some other
photographers ...and critics have with Adams. Many photographers who have tried to
capture this small population of proud Appalachian families have been intrusive...voyeurs
who shoot from a distance ... geographically and emotionally. Were they to arrive at the
home of these people...they would more than likely be invited to leave upon their arrival.
Shelby has an "in" .... because of his love and concern for the people of Appalachia and
because he is "one of them". He has the opportunity, and the task of documenting their
lives and struggles so that the world may come to know them....not as uneducated and so
different from us...but as real, honest, hardworking, hard-living people. They are us at our
most stripped down level. I have a real fondness for these wonderful people.
I encourage anyone interested in the people of Appalachia and the great photography of
Shelby Adams to check out his work. His latest book "Appalachian Lives" is currently
available. Also check out his website, videos and the documentary "The True Meaning
Pictures". In this documentary you will get to follow Adams as he visits the various families
The Jacobs and Collins Boys, 2003
Dillon, Oct. '07
Standing in front of Great Grandfathers Civil War saddle.
has the dedicated long term support of a loving partner who's father was also from Hazard,
KY. He lectures and teaches, nationally and Internationally conducting
photography workshops instructing students in how to approach people, improve
their communication skills with others and technically he teaches lighting, compositional
balance and other technical photograph skills.
Within the professional photography and art world, everyone knows documentary
work is done as a labor of love, not for financial gain.
That said....Adams does not forget the people of Appalachia when he goes back home to
Massachusetts. He helps them out in many ways from having a well drilled so they can
have clean water, to a septic tank being installed, metal roofing for a home for a church, a
new stove or refrigerator, to providing gas money for hospital visits that are often great
As Adams says:
"It's personal between my subjects and me, as is any real friendship. I always wish I
could do more".
As a final summation, we all need to step back from the issues that
concern us and see that we support each other better, acknowledging
where many of us come from - accepting instead of blaming. From my
experience this is what the "Holler Dweller's" have to teach us.
Adam's friend and photo subject Sherman Jacobs gets the last word:
They don’t know what it is to live a poor person’s life. People enjoys livin from day to day,
makin it on their own, not out here crookin somebody or stealin something to make it;
just makin it, surviving on their own. That’s the way Kentucky people are. We just enjoy
doin it, because it’s everyday things. If I go out here today and make enough to survive
to the next day, I’m tickled to death. Long, as I’ve got dinner on the table for my family. If I
tell a man something, I tell the truth. I don’t lie."
Photo by Bill Schwab
"Shelby Lee Adams - Appalachian 'Picture Man'".
by Mark Sean Orr ©
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