Portraits from the hollers
January 18, 2010 10:30 AM   Subscribe

Shelby Lee Adams has spent decades photographing the holler families of rural Kentucky and the mountain folk of Appalachia. More B&W images from the Edelman gallery. Interview With An Artist: Shelby Lee Adams (alternate B&W PDF version); Essays by Adams: All of Us and The Napier's Living Room, 1989; Interview with 92-year old Scotty Stidham.
posted by madamjujujive (15 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
In composing this post, I also came across a non-Adams related HBO documentary called American Hollow (part one) that is offered on YouTube over 10 parts. (parts two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, and ten).
posted by madamjujujive at 10:40 AM on January 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Wow, these are really beautiful. Thank you for the post. I haven't read the interview or essays, but I hope to do so soon.
posted by Magnakai at 10:41 AM on January 18, 2010

One of my favourite photographers, thanks.
posted by fire&wings at 10:58 AM on January 18, 2010

beautiful. simply beautiful.
posted by msconduct at 11:27 AM on January 18, 2010

Thank you for the links, I enjoyed going through them all. While I wasn't raised in Appalachia, my family has deep roots in the mountains. Some things stuck out, such as funeral pictures that were mentioned in the interview. I regularly dive into my family's old photos when I'm home, and I've come across several photos of the deceased in their coffins. The oldest may be 100 years and the most recent sixty years in age. At first, I found the photographs somewhat morbid, but then realized that they convey a great amount of love. A picture taken by someone of someone else they will never see again.
posted by Atreides at 11:28 AM on January 18, 2010

Mine too, love his work, thanks madamJJ!
posted by fourcheesemac at 11:33 AM on January 18, 2010

Wow, why don't my B&W photos look like that?
posted by math at 1:18 PM on January 18, 2010

About a dozen years ago I took a weeklong summer class with him, focusing on environmental portraiture. He was very friendly, and explained the painstaking way he earned the trust of the people he photographed. (For example, he'd return to the same small towns and mountain villages time and again, each time with prints from his earlier visits, as gifts for his portrait subjects.)

For the most part, though, the class was about learning his technical methods; he almost always shoots with a portable, off-camera flash kit. I lugged one of those all around Central Park for a week, shooting fellow students. Looking at his prints, you might assume he just uses natural light, but he's actually an artificial-lighting expert. I think it gives his prints a slightly otherworldly feel, as grounded as they are in very real environments. It also means he sets up his shots carefully, which might give the people he shoots a feeling that he's taking them seriously.

(I was familiar with Adams' work prior to the class, but due to his name I thought he was a woman. For some reason I told him this, and he just laughed.)
posted by lisa g at 2:01 PM on January 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

One thing that popped out to me in the photographs was the presence of animals. I'm not talking about the hens scratching in the dirt, but rather a specific intent to have individuals holding cats or chicks, etc. I never found an explanation in the interview or other materials for this pattern.
posted by Atreides at 2:24 PM on January 18, 2010

Now the question is, who do I reconcile my affection for these people with my prejudice against similar people who live close to home? I guess I have some self-examination to do...
posted by klanawa at 3:09 PM on January 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

posted by klanawa at 3:09 PM on January 18, 2010

Some of these days, I'm going to go up into the Kentucky mountains, take my camera and take photos of native Appalachians smiling. No big deal, just simple photos of rural Kentuckians smiling.
posted by Mcable at 4:06 PM on January 18, 2010

Atreides, re the people with animals theme, did you see this set from his blog? Those are some of my favorites. That and the Napier family.

btw, I remember your good Appalachian voices post. There have actually been some great Appalachia posts on mefi - worth exploring for any who enjoyed this post.

lisa g, what a great experience. Thanks for sharing it. Interspersed in Adams' blog posts, there are a few photos that show him at work: shooting NayBug & Jamie and with the Slones.
posted by madamjujujive at 7:12 PM on January 18, 2010

I can wholeheartedly recommend the full length movie The True Meaning of Pictures, it is a great look at Adams' work. (short excerpt is the Appalachia link above). The doc explores the power and class dynamics (the politics of representation if you will) in a sensitive way that lets you in to the relationship between the photographer and his friends and subjects. The people he photographs in Appalachia are maligned and stereotyped - I'm glad Adams is there portraying their lives honestly and respectfully.

(and hey, while I'm here - the filmmaker who did "The True Meaning of Pictures" has also made another fantastic movie called Manufactured Landscapes)

I'm totally going to check out the Picture Man, thanks for posting M Jujujive.
posted by Joad at 8:52 PM on January 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

madamjujujive, thanks for pointing to the specific blog section on the animals. I had somehow missed it, though some of the photos had appeared elsewhere in the links.

I really wish he had a collection documenting the hog slaughtering. My grandfather left an oral history of his life and referred to his interest in that period of the year as, "When I wanted to stay home and help, I had to go to school. When I was old enough and had to stay home and help, I wanted to go to school!" Not to mention, an aside as to how they would tie the pig bladders, which could then be turned into balloons.

Needless to say, there are many aspects to my grandfather's and ancestors' lives that I want to learn and see more about. At least some of these photos have helped in that regard.

As the child of what I've seen some refer to as "urban Appalachians," folks from Appalachia who have moved out of the mountains, I feel quite a gulf between myself, my upbringing, and my ancestral heritage. One of the greatest extents that my parents raised me with regard to their world is simply pronouncing hollow as "holler." That's not to say that they grew up in circumstances like the subjects and friends of Mr. Adams, you have to go back another generation to find that type of living. However, I feel a sense of loss that I don't nearly have that strong a connection that I should, had I been born in the mountains, instead of beyond them. As a result, I try and learn and educate myself as much as I can about Appalachia and my own family history and culture. So again, thanks for assisting in that.
posted by Atreides at 10:47 AM on January 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

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