Seeing Appalachia: Photographer Shelby Lee Adam's Portraits
Photographer Shelby Lee Adams illuminates one of the South’s least-traveled corners
Shelby Lee Adams’s uncle was a country doctor in the remote hollows of eastern
Kentucky. During his high school years, Adams often traveled with him as his ersatz medical assistant, helping set broken bones, patch gunshot wounds, and treat mine-accident traumas. It was and is coal-mining country, and Adams saw the poverty and suffering the people—“my people,” he calls them—endured.
“I grew up with a different vision,” says the sixty-one-year-old photographer, whose body of work—some ten thousand images from Appalachia—is represented in the permanent collections of museums across the country and internationally. “I’m trying to put a little light in some darker areas.” His fourth book of portraits, salt & truth, was recently released by Candela Books, and selected images will go on display beginning in March at Louisville’s Paul Paletti Gallery.
Adams knows dark. He likes to quote Cormac McCarthy, and in the narrow side-winding valleys of Kentucky, he’s had guns pulled on him. (“They’re just testing you,” he says.)
His uncle’s patients were his first subjects, and he treated them all like family, collaborating with them on the shots and giving them prints afterward. His reputation spread throughout the hills, and over four decades he established deep ties to the families he photographed. Take Louverna, who lived in Lost Creek. Adams had been photographing in the area since 1989 but had never met her. Then her brothers flagged him down and told him that she wanted to talk to him. Adams went to see Louverna, who said she was very ill and wanted him “to make my picture.”