The Importance of Being Shelby Lee Adams [Visual Art]

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Shelby Lee Adams

 

Photographer Shelby Lee Adams has been taking photographs as document for the past 30 years. He has built a career on taking portraits of the people in the isolated areas of Eastern Kentucky, which is better known as Appalachia, and his newest book Salt and Truth continues the photo album he has been compiling for over three decades. The Salt and Truth collection consists of 80 new photographs that were taken over the past eight years. A selection of photographs from his newest work is currently on view at the Paul Paletti Gallery until May 31st.

Adams’ work has been featured in three monographs: Appalachian Portraits (1993), Appalachian Legacy (1998), and Appalachian Lives (2003), but the ubiquitous Appalachian title is missing from his fourth publication. Salt and Truth: Photographs by Shelby Lee Adams may be a continuation of his massive 36 year collection, but this time it’s personal. At age 61, Adams still returns to the “hollers” of Kentucky to visit and photograph the families he’s befriended over the years, and the eleven page essay that begins his newest book defends why he does it.  

For years, critics have chosen to sidestep the fact that Adams is a phenomenal photographer in order to focus on creating the controversy that they think lies behind it. Adams has been accused of exploiting a region that is already saddled with negative stereotypes and that he’s capitalizing on selling poverty. He’s also been charged with composing certain shots the way he wants it to appear opposed to catching the action in real time like a true documentarian.

In Adams’ essay, “The Roots of Inspiration,” he writes, “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.” Translation: the photos speak for themselves.

In a recent interview in the publication LensWork, Adams admits to initially being “shocked” by the wave of criticism that his images were perpetuating a stereotype. He says, “The stereotype is based on a real issue; it’s based on real people, but what I’m doing in the heads of the hollows hadn’t really been seen before. It elicited all kinds of responses in the beginning. Now I think people see my work differently, especially because I’ve photographed the same families in all four books. There are some families where I’ve photographed four generations. I think there’s a depth that is hopefully giving some insight into this specific place.”

 

Paul Paletti Gallery is located at 713 E. Market Street, Louisville, KY.

More on this article at artintheblue.com.

About Julie Gross
I’m originally from Ohio, but have been a Louisvillian for half my life. I divide my time between hubby, 3 kids, too many pets, and the 930 Art Center. When I'm not, you'll find me running the trails in Cherokee or Jefferson Memorial Forest.
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