“I ask folks to look into the camera lens and find their own reflection, while thinking about significant events in their lives that are important to them. Life experiences for all of us vary greatly and are imprinted in our core being, and that bears through, influencing our appearances. When a photographer is connected to his subjects, pretences and masks fall away, bringing forward a more unrestrained and engaging portrait.” – Shelby Lee Adams
Initially, as the photographer says, “I wanted to photograph what I knew.” But pictures of neighbours and acquaintances soon followed the portraits of his grandparents, uncle and aunt. The more he came back to families with the pictures he had taken, the easier it was for him to gain people’s trust. Over the decades, he photographed three, four, and even five generations of one same family. His portrait series have already appeared in a number of books. “After seeing my first book, it was clear that the holler folk understood my vision and, since then, they have always helped me to find more of the grounded and authentic culture that defines them, even as it disappears,” Adams explains. “So, by word of mouth, I’ve created a collective portrait of our holler people that many have never been seen before.” Poverty, the traces of hard work and the tough living conditions are always visible in people’s features, though they are not the main reason for taking the pictures. Adams’s approach is defined by the concept of humanistic photography; he considers his images more of a reflection of a frequently overlooked and neglected community, rather than a social documentary.
The photo book presented here shows 89 pictures, unpublished-to-date, taken between 1974 and 2010, when Adams’s preferred large-format Polaroid process was discontinued. He feels that it is important that each person should be portrayed in the way they consider best: some sit; others stand; some pose in front of their houses; and others prefer to be captured inside their homes. In this manner, details of everyday life are revealed, quite incidentally, resulting in a gently coherent photo book which goes way beyond the superficial portrait.
Shelby Lee Adams was born in Hazard, Kentucky, in 1950. He studied at the Cleveland Institute of Art, where he soon came into contact with Farm Security Administration photographs, which inspired his signature Appalachian pictures. He has been publishing them since the nineties in a number of monographs, among other formats.
Shelby Lee Adams: From the Heads of the Hollers
176 pages, 89 black and white pictures
28 × 36 cm, English
All images on this page: © Shelby Lee Adams