Probably the Most Important Living Photographer in America – Shelby Lee Adams and his Appalachian People

One can only stand back and admire Shelby Lee Adams and his commitment to a full and honest presentation of the people of Eastern Kentucky’s Appalachian Mountains.  For nearly 40 years, he has been doing this with a large format 4”x5” camera, a heavy tripod and repeated visits that have made his sitters close friends, who look forward to his visits, and the photographs that he brings, as a gesture of thank you for letting him make their photographs. 

I think of Shelby Lee Adams as a contextual portraitist.  A photographer who includes enough circumstance and environmental content to not only portray the image of the person, but who also includes references to where the sitter comes from and what they are about.  I could perhaps refer to this as the antithesis of the Irving Penn Worlds in a Small Room photographs.  Where Penn photographed in his mobile studio against a neutral background, Adams works hard to include the references around the sitter to help the viewer better understand the subject of his photographs.

Shelby Lee Adams: Brothers Praying

I understand that Adams walked and drove with his uncle, a retired physician, who after a year of retirement in Florida came back to Kentucky and in a WWII Willy’s Jeep did many years of house calls in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in Eastern Kentucky.  Often riding with his uncle, Adams earned the trust of the many families he met, and one could say, earned the right to return with his heavy and cumbersome tripod and lights.

The photographs that Mr. Adams makes are of course anchored in a long tradition of great photographers.  The list is long and you can no doubt come up with everyone from Disfarmer, to Evans, Dorothea Lange and so forth, but when you take the time to study Adams’ work, you realize that he is different.  The Farm Security Administration set out to document migration and the lot of those that suffered during The Dust Bowl of the 1930s and started the slow move West.  The mostly anonymous people in the FSA archive, who may from time to time be identified with a short description following a quick exchange with the photographer, before they moved on to the next shot, remain largely unknown. FSA photographs are documents, or proof of a certain suffering.  Adams’ work is different. 

Adams’ sitters have a glow in their eyes, an affection that comes across only when the sitter is a close friend, beyond just being a subject.  Adams has spent many, many hours with the families, has shared meals, drunk good home made sour mash and enjoyed the company of these largely forgotten people that somehow the American Dream left at the doorstep.  Proud, free and honest, often grounded in a strong Christian faith, the people of Shelby Lee Adams’ photographs come to life in a way that can only happen when you can feel an intimacy between the person with the button and the person in front of the lens. Adams says: “I can’t emphasize enough how vital a non-judgmental eye and sincere recognition is…. Kindness and empathy contribute on this journey. “

Shelby Lee Adams: Mary, 1989

Shelby Lee Adams of course is also a master printer.  His work comes across in beautifully toned prints on paper that is the best available.  I am sure, he would have dreamed of having some of the papers that were available 50, or more years ago.  There is a classic elegance to the work that would have been perfect on a warm 1930s paper.  However, we live in the 21st century and we work with what is available and Mr. Adams does a wonderful job presenting his subjects in a manner that can only be described as timeless, reverential, but honest and true to the circumstances under which the people live in the Hollers of Eastern Kentucky.

When still available, Shelby Lee Adams worked with a Polaroid back for his 4”x5” camera and used to give the Polaroid to the subject of his photograph, before organizing himself for the actual exposure.  Taking home the film and developing and printing the images in his studio at the very north tip of the Appalachian Mountains, Shelby Lee Adams returns a couple of times a year to visit and share the resulting images with his friends, who greet him with a smile and a hug.

You can feel Shelby Lee Adams’ photographs.  This is rare and wonderful and justifies my nomination for the title the Most Important Living Photographer in America.

Harbel

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