Book tip: From the Heads of the Hollers

August 17, 2023

Classic and impressive images by American photographer Shelby Lee Adams from the Appalachians in the US state of Kentucky – a homage to a frequently overlooked community.
The Hollers referred to in the title of US photographer Shelby Lee Adams’s new photo book is a term used, regionally, to describe the narrow valleys of Kentucky's remote and often difficult-to-reach mountain regions, which are frequently only accessible by single-lane roads. The 72-year-old knows the area very well, and has been photographing the locals there for over four decades. As a child, Adams moved frequently, as his father was a natural gas engineer who worked along the East Coast of the United States; however, he regularly spent the summer months in the Appalachians, where his grandparents lived off the land. Once he began to work in photography, he continued to return to the villages; as a result, since 1974, he has built up a unique portrait archive, which, in its austerity, is reminiscent of great classics along the lines of August Sander’s People of the 20th Century. This association comes not only from the analogue black and white photography, but also from the mostly identical shooting positions, where the protagonist looks directly into the camera.

“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.
Ulrich Rüter
All images on this page: © Shelby Lee Adams

Shelby Lee Adams: From the Heads of the Hollers+-

11_Shelby Lee Adams cover

176 pages, 89 black and white pictures
28 x 36 cm, English


Book tip: From the Heads of the Hollers