Last week, I published Shelby Lee Adams’ essay “The Work of Looking,” as a result of our phone and email conversations about his life and work in Appalachia. Part of our conversation was centered on the Appalachian stereotype and how we as viewers, both Appalachians and non, look at mountain people, culture, and place.

For years now, Shelby Lee Adams’ work has challenged me, both as an Appalachian and a photographer. I’d never been able to sit with his work very long as it almost always elicited a strong, visceral, and ultimately defensive response. Frustrated by the stark depiction of poverty and implied stereotypes of Appalachia and her people, I dismissed his work as the kind I didn’t want to make. And then we talked.

What started to surface for me during the course of our conversations were my own biases and the implied stereotypes I bring to the table when looking at photographs – especially photographs from Appalachia. I didn’t want to deal with the hard work of looking at my own prejudices, so it was easier to dismiss the work as typical stereotyping of Appalachia. There is no real work involved in this way of thinking. It doesn’t require anything of me. It’s safe, but it isn’t honest.

Several months ago, I contacted Candela Books founder Gordon Stettinius and asked for a copy of Adams’ latest book, Salt & Truth, to review here. Since the book was released nearly a year ago, I didn’t expect they’d actually send one, but they did. I also didn’t expect that spending time with the work would ask me to take an honest look at how, and why, I look at Shelby Lee Adams’ work the way I do. But when I sat with this beautifully edited, sequenced book, it did just that.

Salt & Truth is Adams’ first book with Candela and his fourth book overall: Appalachian Portraits (1993), Appalachian Legacy (1998), and Appalachian Lives (2003). Salt & Truth (2011) contains 80 plates in its 128 pages along with introductions by James Enyeart and Catherine Evans. Perhaps the most powerful feature of Salt & Truth, is Adams’ own eleven-page commentary, “The Roots of Inspiration,” wherein Adams writes:

“Many American ideals are dedicated to sleek, fashionable, and powerful images of ourselves. When presented instead with a more complete picture of someone who looks dissimilar, some will balk and accuse the presenter of the descent of the people and community. We have oppressed tenuous people for centuries by hiding them in the shadows…People’s faces reflect what God has given them but also reveal what others have inflicted, shunned, or propagated.”

Adams’ work has become so iconic that it’s nearly impossible to have a serious discussion about Appalachian photography without including him. His work has been widely praised – and criticized – by a number of people, yet it has continued, strong and steady for nearly 40 years. There’s something to be said for anyone – photographer, historian, or preacher – that continues to go back to the same communities year after year, earning and keeping the trust and friendship of the people. You can’t continue to make this kind of work and have these types of familial connections if the people you’re photographing feel taken advantage of.

“I love his work. I’ve had so many conversations about this, and I’ve had some people seriously attack me for liking his work. I deliver the mail 110 miles through these mountains, so I go up hollers and see places that a lot of people who have lived here their entire lives have never seen. I know several of the people in Shelby’s books. I know family members of them too. I feel very deeply about his photos and I see the beauty and I think it’s important for people to see. This is a whole culture of people that are rarely seen and often ignored. They’re the folks being destroyed by mountaintop removal (mining). They’re the folks that are shunned when they go into town. They deserve to be seen, and he’s the only person documenting that culture (that I know of). And I have to say that the people in Shelby’s books are not a minority, at least not here. I’ve noticed at times that it is difficult for people to see the whole picture. Look at the photo on the cover of the book. I see a guy that looks like so many other guys around here: no shirt, tattoos, sunglasses for riding his 4-wheeler. I’ve seen arguments where people thought Shelby should have made him put a shirt on. How silly! He was hanging out shirtless, he got photographed shirtless. But mostly what I see in that photo is that amazing time of day when the sun is hitting the mountains just right and lights up one part of it so that it can take your breath away. Shelby captured that. He saw that. I’ve seen people call his pictures disgusting, and I can’t fathom how someone could say that about another person. These are human beings and if we look at the photos and see something disgusting, then I believe that is a problem inside of ourselves, and not the problem of the photographer or the subject.” – Cindy Shepherd, Oneida, Kentucky

Jöerg Colberg over at Conscientious, in his piece “Photography and Place: Appalachia” writes:

“I believe the best and possibly only way to deal with the problem of representation is to embrace the bias. So let’s not call it bias, let’s call it what it really is: The artist’s creative vision, which is coupled with the artist’s personal integrity. That’s what it comes down to. I believe the best way to present a body of work about a place is to say: This is what this place looked like to me. I’m not showing you the place, I’m showing you my view of it. Now deal with it!”

Colberg continues:

“I personally believe that as much as any artist can do whatever they want, they still have the personal responsibility to understand and navigate the context their work lives in. However highly you regard yourself as an artist, you work does not exist in a vacuum. It is being placed into at least the history of photography (around 170+ years), and it also is being placed into our culture, that odd, malleable thing that keeps shifting and moving.”

Adams’, in his own words, puts his work in context in Salt & Truth:

“It is the spirit of the mountaineer living in the hollers that motivates and interests me. The visual representation of this culture has rarely been made 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 multilayered 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 sel-assured.”

From Estelle Jussim’s, Propaganda and Persuasion:

“Educators may prate about photographic literacy, but what is needed is an understanding of how any picture could miraculously transform painful information into coherent social action. For the obvious truth is that a single photograph, unaccompanied by verbal messages, cannot simultaneously contain both the image of the problem and the solution to the problem. A photograph, therefore, would seem to be able to pose the question, to imply a situation for which some other medium might be needed to provide the answer.”

So what are our expectations of Appalachian photographs? How willing are we to be self-aware when looking at this kind of work? Any kind of work? What are our own biases? We can’t oversimplify Shelby Lee Adams’ photographs because it requires thought and honesty. Truly there is work involved in looking at these photographs and though some of his work isn’t always easy to look at, I’m grateful that Shelby Lee Adams’ work asks me to put my hand to the plow.


Seven black and white photographs from Salt & Truth © Shelby Lee Adams.
1. Eagle’s Nest, 2008.
2. Lloyd Dean with Family and Coal Truck, 2002.
3. Dan, Krissy and Leddie, 1993.
4. Robbie and Tyler on Wrecker, 2003.
5. Melony, 1996.
6. Alma Gail and Boys, 2003.
7. Brother Ish, 1994.

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8 Responses to Looking at Appalachia | Shelby Lee Adams – Part Two

  1. christian says:

    I ran across Shelby Lee Adam’s work a couple of decades ago. My sense of the work and the photographer then and now is that he is a very serious and honest in his work. I regard him, along with Birney Imes as one of the outstanding photographers of southern culture and people, and I am delighted to see his work here and your giving him a ‘second look.’ I like what Colberg said: “…So let’s not call it bias, let’s call it what it really is: The artist’s creative vision, which is coupled with the artist’s personal integrity…” I think in the case of Adams and Imes the integrity trumps every other concern.

  2. Frank Marshman says:

    The bias we bring to a photograph is always about the viewer and not the photogrpher. The bias that the photographer brings to the photograph is always about the photographer not the subject. The camera is the only unbiased part of the equation, it mearly records the image put in front of it.

    These images that Shelby Lee Adams has made forces us to evaluate and re-evaluate our own cultural biases just as the images of her young children made by Sally Mann has forced us to do. They jerk our comfortable sensibilities and ideals and we don’t like that.

    Thank God for people like Shelby Lee Adams and Sally Mann to awaken us back to life.

  3. Pac Mclaurin says:

    I have always been divided on Shelby Lee Adams. I really admire his photography. Both his technical skill and his intense feeling for the people he photographs are undeniable. I just wish that he did not so often feel called to issue an apology or rationale for his work. Better he should rise above his critics and plunge forward doing what he does so well. He seems to almost set himself up for criticism. In reading some of his writing he at one time calls his photography not documentary but fine art, and later he begins to defend his work as documentary. He keeps on doing this work so he must not have much doubt about its importance, but then he sort of stumbles over his own feet trying to justify it. I show his work and we discuss it in a First Year College Seminar. Some of the students find Adams a conflicted soul in his feeling the need for self justification and simultaneously being so talented and committed.

  4. [...] Looking at Appalachia | Shelby Lee Adams – Part Two [Walk your camera] [...]

  5. I discovered Shelby’s first 2 books in a bookstore in Hawaii when I lived there about 15 years ago. I had to have them. I sat on the floor in that bookstore and looked at those images and wept. I literally ate them up. They transported me to my childhood and images that hadn’t crossed my mind for 20 years or so came flying out of my memory. My granny’s creased face, her hands, her apron, her braided hair twisted into a bun, her eyes. All these images buried deep in my mind, were back suddenly back. Memories of her standing at the cook stove, my grandfather telling stories, my 11 aunts and uncles and scores of cousins slamming in & out of a small 3bdrm house. Holidays with our huge family, Sunday dinners, and laughter…so much laughter. And work too, gardening, cooking, the saw mill, running trot lines, fishing, mushroom hunting, cutting and splitting wood, hunting & clean meat, hanging wash on the line…I saw my childhood EXACTLY as I remembered it in Shelby’s photos. I loved those people like my own family. My sensitivities were never offended by his work. I felt pride. I wore the pages of those books out for the remainder of my time in Hawaii. My husband is in the USN. We were away for 9 years. I was so homesick and suffered culture-shock in Hawaii. Those books were the only ones that understood and could help me. (Coupled with a lot of Lynyrd Skynyrd).

    To this day, when I go home I don’t think of “poverty”. They’re my people, it’s a culture, a way of life. It’s not about money or a lack of possessions but about carrying on traditions. It’s a way of life that I’m afraid is going to be extinct soon. I think that is the real fear. People have moved on to “civilized” ways of life and they don’t understand the old ways. It’s tragic. I’d go back. Life was simple even if it was hard.

    I don’t understand the critics of Shelby’s work whatsoever. It has to be an internal conflict. After-all, I suppose that is the goal of exceptional artwork, what it makes the viewer feel. In this case it’s uncomfortable. I guess that would be for the viewer to work out within themselves. Shelby’s work is magnificent. Just like bluegrass and country music, folk art, southern literature, quilting, cooking, we need all of the arts working in unison so we can preserve our backwoods culture. At least record it. I’m not ashamed of my humble home in the hills. All this talk of “hiding them away in the hills and hollers”, that’s what upsets me and I feel that Shelby’s work may shine light on that dark little part of people’s hearts. His art has passion and meaning. Everyone that sees it knows that instinctively but they don’t seem fond of what it illuminates within themselves.

    As I once was when I was secluded on a tiny island in the middle of the Pacific (which some people would consider Paradise), I still am very thankful for Shelby’s work. It saved my sanity a tiny bit. It felt like home to me.

    I don’t know about in the past but today I’ve heard Shelby call his work “autobiographical”, not documentary. That’s something to think about. It puts a whole different perspective on it, doesn’t it?

  6. William Back says:

    From a historian’s perspective, given the breadth and scope (40 years worth) of the photographs already taken, and the likelihood that even more photographs will be added to his portfolio, I’d suggest that Shelby Lee Adams stands alone in capturing images of this part of American culture.
    It is likely these images will endure, and we can thank heaven that the young “doctor’s assistant” chose to “photograph what he knew” after leaving Kentucky to attend Art School.

    One must appreciate and applaud his singular dedication to this task. In addition to the technical mastery evident in the photographs, and the honesty and directness of the images, with Shelby Lee Adams we have an American artist who cares about his subjects and who shares photos, stories, and establishes and continues relationships—and then comes back next year and does it all over again–renewing friendships, continuing the relationships. We should be grateful for this important body of work. It will be a legacy for future generations.

  7. Stan B. says:

    Any group of people, whatever their distinction, should be lucky enough to have a Shelby Lee immortalize them.

  8. John Flavell says:

    After years of reading the criticism about Adams’ work, which I find fascinating, I’ve noticed much of the bashing comes from writers who would like to remake Appalachia in their own image.

    I’ve also become aware that many critics are not from Appalachia. They may have moved here decades ago for one altruistic or another, but they are not of the same earth.

    Another noticeable trait: they do not know photography and the most rabid of the ilk have never bothered to talk to Adams himself, who is no recluse.

    The photography does not present problems or solutions; that’s not the purpose of art photography. The images do create discomfort within those who look hard for problems and solutions instead of “just what is.” That is one purpose of art photography.

    Adams and his subjects, his people and collaborators, created the body of work for their own purposes and that is the main reason for creating any kind of art: self expression.

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