Shelby Lee Adams - Appalachia's "Picture Man"
       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.

                                                           Vanessa, Oct.'07
                                       [Standing in front of Great Grandmother's Photo]

           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
    previous visit.
           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.

                                                         Napier's Living Room, '89


                                                    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
    spiritually self-sufficient.
    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 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".
           The "Smithsonian Magazine" also sent journalist Abigail Tucker to Kentucky and
    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.
    Berthie Napier:
    "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
    "real" :
    “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
    of Appalachia.....



                                         The Jacobs and Collins Boys, 2003


                                                      Dillon, Oct. '07
                       Standing in front of Great Grandfathers Civil War saddle.
                                                          Mallie, Ky

    Giving back.....

           Adams supports himself by doing unrelated commercial photography work and luckily
    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
    distances away.

           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:
    People away from here, they got all they need in life, they got new homes, new car’s.
    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."
    Sherman Jacobs
    October '07


                                                           Shelby Adams
                                                           Photo by Bill Schwab
"Shelby Lee Adams - Appalachian 'Picture Man'".
by Mark Sean Orr ©
Photos on this page used by permission of Shelby Lee Adams.
All information published on this site is protected by United States copyright law and may not be reproduced, distributed,
transmitted, displayed or published without written permission from Collectors World Online.  
Mark Orr®
Raintree County Website
Music is
"A Little Piece of my Heart"
Simon Husberg

This is a wonderful tribute to Shelby, his people and to the beautiful work they make together.
~Curt Miller

Very nice article, Mark..I actually jotted this book title down a few months ago and I intend to get it..My
family has alot of history in Appalachia..My Mom was a 'West Virginia' girl :) .."
~Kim Little

These are the homes and faces of the people I grew up around. They are the faces of my grandparents
and uncles, aunts, cousins, in-laws. This world is drifting away and being populated by pasty faced walmart
shoppers all geared up to be like everyone else...sort of franchized people, all the same...

Mark...You have presented a wonderful journey both in words and photos through an area and people
often  forgotten and over looked. I could not stop once I began to travel through this article. It is an
emotional journey and you have presented it quite eloqently. The flow was really done quite well. Well done
my friend...there is nothing you cannot do in the arts if you put your mind to it. By the way I love your entry
in the contest and I believe this is an art form often overlooked to...photograpy is an art. I am very
impressed with this article...thanks so much for sharing.
~Joanne Beebe

When I look at his photographs, I feel I'm part of the photograph.I want to be part of them.
Nobody gets closer to people than Shelby Lee Adams. He knows humanity like not many are aware of in
the USA. He introduced me to his world and his people are part of me now. I can't forget. Shelby Lee
Adams, you are a humble and compassionate Listener of Life.
~Sincerely, Dominique Cheyns

Shelby is a beloved friend and a inspiration to me. Coming from Ohio,
I spent my child hood among folks who had left Kentucky to find a better life.  
Sometimes they did; sometimes they didn't. Being African American, I learned later that while poorer than I,
they enjoyed privileges I could never experience back then.  Nevertheless, I counted among these people
some loyal friends, caring neighbors, and one memorable love.  
Having family from the rural south, I recognize that the line between these folks and some of
mine is very fine. I have been to a home funeral. I have swept a sandy yard with a brush broom.
Thank you Shelby, and thank you Mark Orr.
~Gwen Rosemond

~Jennifer Baker

"Not too far from where my in-laws live! Correct-these are stark and stunning photos! Great area to take
pictures and realize their lifestyle."
~Pamela Lynn Green

I am not from the US and we sure have places like that. I am in awe of their faces, the skin, their wrinkles
remind me of the earth lands surface. Sometimes we look out to third world countries ( whatever that
means) but it's happening right here, images of New Orleans.....It's going on everywhere.
~Dave McKenzie

Very interesting. I have appreciated your work for years.
~Andrzej Maciejewski

~Betty Kelly

Been a fan for a long time. Trust is a hard thing to come by, and Mr. Adams has earned in spades.
Thomas W. Miller

Fantastic Shelby! I love your work as I've said before ... I can't speak for Kentuckians as I've never visited
the US but what I do feel from your photos is that there is no sense of 'condescension' of these folk more a
sense of showing their dignity/pride/warmth and humour ~ poverty is never a good thing and deserves to
be documented and highlighted especially when it exists in the wealthiest countries but people are always
much more than their circumstances and that shines out through your photos.
~Marysia Wojtaszek

Those 4 boys are so cool. this is one fine essay, i dream of being that good.
~John Essmaker (Ovation Artist and Community Leader).

Great job on a fantastic artist Mark!!!!!!
~Rich (rrockhopper) Ovation Community Artist.

This documentary beautifuly captures in word and photography  the wonderful spirit of the people in the
mountains. A lovely article about real beauty in humanity. That Universal truth never fades.  Thanks Shelby
and Mark.

Mark, this is wonderful writing. I read it with the utmost interest. Shelby is one of the finest photographers of
our times. His art is a great and loving act of compassion and desire to documenting the real people's lives.
I love his art and I understand it. Great work!

Wonderful read Mark. You have become a tour de force in your own right. Bravo!
~Your Friend Stuart
Video clip of Shelby Lee Adams visiting the Napier family in 1989, courtesy
of Ovation TV.
Adam's 4th book, Salt & Truth was published in October of 2011 by Candela