Sunday, May 20, 2012

Updated April, 2020   Photo Above, Neon Family Drug, 2019


              Shelby’s pictures are made creating and capturing the spirit of the people within the mountainous lands they all so love.  Shelby was born in Hazard Kentucky and has genuine relationships to this place and with its people. These pictures and words are the photographer's and his subjects' collaborative work, reflecting life within this beautiful yet imperfect world. 

Shelby and Jennifer, Eagles Nest, October 2019
Photo by Heidi
                               "These color photographs represent a significant part of our lives today. Preacher Dillard, a minister from Barwick, Kentucky told me when I made his picture he wanted it to be published in a spiritual way. He referred me to read the Bible's Book of Revelations, Chapter 21: 27, " which reads _ but only those who are written in the Lamb's Book of Life," will find eternal life. 
      I've titled this color work, The Book of Life. 
      With respect and dedication to Preacher Dillard.                           

Shelby Lee Adams

           "In contemplating Shelby Lee Adams work, one is moved to reverence by both the quality of his daring images and the lives of these people - offered up with such profound beauty.  Even as Shelby captures such an ironic beauty with his camera, the portraits themselves give a witness to that which we hope might endure in all of us – grace, love, dignity, perseverance, strength, and all else that blesses and redeems the frail, conflicted human experience.  Stated more succinctly, these beautiful photographs have soul, and a little reflection of glory."

Rev. Reynold Furrell, Pastor, Holy Trinity Church, Ladera Ranch, California



While visiting and photographing year after year with friends our relationships grow and evolve. My visual approach shifts as an individual might change. We become more acquainted and invested in each other’s lives. I encourage folks to experience themselves within, to bring up, to give, even to give out [mirror] a part of their inner being, strengthening themselves by so doing because many are strong and kindly people. I ask folks to look directly and straightforwardly into the camera, to concentrate, center themselves, and to search for their reflections in the camera’s lens. At that moment, I photograph.

                                     —Shelby Lee Adams

Rooster, 2013

Barwick  Swinging Bridge, 2015

Church Sign, 2013

Freddie's Cabin, 2012

Those No More

Highway 699, Leatherwood, 2013

      The original settlers here were often subsistence farmers, hunters and gatherers who understood a more interconnected way of life. They lived day to day: working, supporting and nurturing life; helping to support one another; finding, incubating, and hatching an unborn chick from an orphaned egg. They birthed their own children at home or in their gardens where they worked. Tended their fields and cared for their farm animals through productive harvests but also through tribulations.  Witnessing life’s miracles and defeats ...They functioned while on this earth, with awareness of potential storms and natural disasters challenging daily existence.

Bill Gibson, Age 104, 2008

Barbara, Age 103, 2014

Their history of related images perhaps began around The Great Depression of the 1930s. Our government funded the FSA documentation project among relief programs in the 1930’s, followed by President Roosevelt’s welfare policies called FDR’s New Deal, carried on through The War On Poverty years of the 1960s. Programs were established to help the needy, distributing benefits without a focus on the culture of the recipients. Many would rather not remember this difficult history, our history.

Three Church Women, 2012

Back then people paid part of their debts with each year’s crops, sometimes bartering or trading with a young piglet or a baby calf. They helped each other—and depended on one another. In the mountains, when hunting and fishing was good, a family could eat abundantly from the native wildlife. Catfish, deer venison, raccoon, ground hog and wild turkey were some of the natural game in the local forest and streams. “Poke sallet” a native green plant that grows in the mountains served as a cooked salad or vegetable, with other edible plants. 

Milt Cox,  1996
[original Kodachrome]

Lloyd Deane holding Great  Grandbaby, 2010

Shelby standing beside a Chromaluxe test print. A select few images are available in the beautiful Chromaluxe process, printed on aluminum  32 x 40 inches.

 Our government has had social programs implemented for years, but some people’s conditions and situations do not seem to change. That is not to say, there are some dedicated organizations and individuals who work endlessly and tirelessly to help their fellowman. But, it takes an entire community working together to improve a communal economic and social divide, propagated over the generations. A local holler dweller describes how he feels his folk are seen in their town and community, “It’s only what you thinkin’ is what you see in us, those who have a plenty don’t want to know or see those of us without.” 

        In the thirteenth century the theologian Meister Eckhart wrote, “The poor are indeed left to God, for no one takes an interest in them.” Is today different? I’ve met illiterate folk who are very intelligent, with commanding reasoning powers and survival skills; with some needing training to be productive and employed, but do we really provide that opportunity? Do we not expect them to be like us? Don't we often approach the poor giving them false hopes of developing themselves, instead providing a trifling check and food stamps to get by, creating  more self-loathing and dependence.

Lonnie holding Baby, 1985
[Original  Kodachrome]

Preacher Dillard, 2012

Dillard's Agreement he requested me to sign before making his photograph. 2012

Preacher Dillard’s Story. 2012

            I met and photographed Dillard only once. Mutual friends at Barwick had been encouraging him to have his photo made for some time. A church member gave him a copy of my book, "Salt and Truth.” He studied it for one month before calling back asking his friend to bring me over on June 28th2020 to make his picture. Dillard’s story is unique.

Dillard’s history as told to me by several people - Dillard was known to be a bank robber in his youth. He was from the Barwick, Kentucky area. His mother in disguise had robbed the depot train when stopped in Barwick years before, taking gold and silver coins. In the 1950s he and two friends went to Chicago and robbed their first bank, then driving to Ohio and Indiana, robbing 3 other places. He said, “You have to dress well and drive a new car to blend in with people.” When he returned to Kentucky the FBI and State Police arrested him and his friends. He served five years in federal prison in Chillicothe, Ohio, but none of the money was recovered. At one point during his incarceration he and a prison mate broke out of the prison practically barefoot during winter. They took shelter in a barn and covered themselves with hay. Dillard said his feet and legs got frostbit and he thought he would loose his legs. He then turned to God before being recaptured.

When released from prison he soon married and recovered the use of his legs and feet, having one son with his wife Pauline. At the age of 26 his son Roger known as a wild’en’ was struck by lighting, killing him instantly. Dillard preached at his son's funeral. At the funeral, he placed a jar of water in his son’s coffin, on his chest a 45 cal. pistol, an undetermined stack of money, all with a Bible. He preached that his son could have some water to drink in hell, shoot or buy his way out of eternal damnation and pray his way into heaven with his Bible. Local’s from then on called Dillard a “Fire and Brimstone,” preacher.

 He then built a one-room house over his son's grave next to his home and placed on the walls photos of his son that represented his life with other religious pictures. His son’s motorcycle, hunting bow and arrows and other personal effects were set up in this grave-house.

When his wife Pauline died he buried her in the same yard building a similar grave house over her. Later, an inmate and close friend whose name was Brewer was executed in prison. His body was also sent to Dillard’s farm, where he was buried, but the prisoner’s grave remained covered with dirt only. Dillard had sometime ago purchased a beautiful 100-acre farm in a very isolated holler called Strong Branch.

I was introduced and shown all these graves and houses when I visited him at his age of 83. He had remained very religious after his son's death. He was rumored to give $100 bills to strangers in need or just those he liked. He kept lots of guns around, as he lived alone. He said he would shoot randomly at night to keep robbers scared away. The walls of his living room were covered with framed 8x10 inch black and white pictures of his fellow inmates in striped caps and shirts, a color picture of Jesus stood out, also on this wall was an unusual black and white photograph of an empty electric chair. I assume from the prison where he was incarcerated. I will always regret that I did not ask to photograph this wall of pictures.

The day we went to photograph him, he met us with his care provider and invited us into his home. He asked that we pray together, and then he asked me to read and sign an agreement [reproduced in book] requesting my spiritual commitments and prayers for the new book. Saying, “I hope this book is an even better book with more soulfulness, especially with my picture in it.” I was very moved by his sincerity and I have titled this book, The Book of Life, taken from our signed agreement. 

We discussed the best place to make his photograph and he decided we would photograph where his son was buried. It took an hour or two to set up the camera and lighting gear in a very small room with little light. He said, he would not be photographed without his 45-caliber pistol in his belt. 

While I was photographing Dillard his care provider shrieked out, I thought she had seen a snake, but instead she had just read Dillard’s son’s tombstone. He had died on a June 28th and we were there photographing on a June 28th, Dillard’s planned synchronicity. When finished, we went back into his home for some cold water, as it was a very hot day. Standing at the kitchen sink Dillard prayed for us again. Before leaving he gave me a new red King James Bible with a chapter and verse marked with an unfolded $100 bill dated 1952. 

         In October 2016 Dillard died at age 87, I was in Kentucky then and was able to attend his wake.


Sherman and Dog, 2016

Pauline, 2016

The Middle

          The days of finding quaint log cabins in the woods are rare. Today, mail-order “prefab” designed cabins are available. Brick homes, mobile homes and trailers generally replace log cabins now. Most of the good bottomlands were bought long ago. 

When a couple from the hollers start out and want to have their own place, one possibility is to buy a lot or have a relative donate a piece of mountainside land. You then pay for a heavy equipment operator to come and grade off enough dirt, making what we call a “house seat” or trailer spot, with enough space for a single or doublewide mobile home. Settling a trailer into these hollers on mountain sides can be difficult and expensive, often requiring a diesel truck with a wench, a backhoe and a bulldozer. You also have the added expense of sewer lines, utility hook ups and finally safety inspections. 

Walter's Trailer, 2012

Jane, 2008

Jane and Richard, 2016

Rocky Hollow

           A man in Rocky Hollow said to me, "Living here - its' like the difference between salt and pepper, water and fire. To us Jesus and Satan are real. Both to test, praise, bring peace and put suffering on you and your kin. You have to learn, them who help, those who hinder and some who do both. Our blood flows through the generations sent by way of original sins and determined redemptions, with many behaviors and manners unknown, some plum wild. God knows it's man here keeps us this way. One's name and kin determines who works, not who needs or even starves. Here invisible inherited borders you can't see make it nearly impossible for some to labor, even be seen or talked to. Some down themselves, they feel they come from the wrong blood. That's why they stay in the mountains-resisting society. Government handouts and welfare don't change that."


Oma, 14 [mother]

Learion and Son, 14

John and Truck, 17 [son]

Ronnie and 4-Wheeler, 14

Walter, 2017

Chickens Roosting, 2019

Cats and Refrigerator, 2018

Lue, 2014

Moonshine Sign, 2016

Roy with Paper Hats, 2009

             Roy with Paper Hats, 2009, Roy was one of my most devoted friends; he died of a heart attack recently at the age of 80. Roy was a country musician who performed at weddings, dances, family reunions and get to together's. He often appeared on local TV and radio programs, everyone knew Roy. He often accompanied me when going out photographing, he sang, played the guitar and harmonica serenading and entertaining folks while I set up my equipment to photograph. He introduced me to new folks, got people to relax while assisting me; with Roy I made many good photographs. As I gave out Polaroids, he would give children and the elderly colorful paper hats he made by hand, teasing and coaxing folks to laugh with him. We were the best of friends  and  folks enjoyed our visits.

Roy knew everyone and the landscape around Leatherwood and Slemp. He saw how the coal companies worked long ago. Roy told me: “TheKentucky River Coal Company owns most of the land around here. Back 40 years ago, if you built a house on coal land, you paid the company five or ten dollars a year to live there—that was it. The coal companies rarely built houses on their property, no-ways. They more or less let stand what locals had done before. Sometimes you could find a company guard shack that had been converted into a house. People just leased existing properties, a year at a time. The companies liked havin’ people on their land, to watch their property, so that no one destroyed what was there or burn up the woods. They didn’t give you anything to help build, you see why some places look the way they do, scraped together.

 If you wanted to build on coal company land, they would let you, but you knew if they needed to mine there, you might have to move with short notice. There have been many who have built homes and lived out their entire lives on coal land and never had to move. Others have had to move around a lot. Today, you can lease property from the coal company and move in a trailer, but you can’t build a home, no more. It’s been that way since strip mining come in.”

Roy holding one month old baby, 2013

Driving through the area today you see many, beautiful homes owned by those who have also lived here all their lives, families who over generations have acquired great wealth, an Appalachian elite you might say, those who inherited or acquired vast amounts of mineral rights to the coal and other natural resources years ago. Some drive Escalades or Hummers and if you look there are many swimming pools beside their homes. They distance themselves, some blaming the poor for not working, although there are very limited opportunities for the untrained, yet the poor continue receiving media’s attention. Resentments follow. It is my intent to photograph with those who invite me in, mostly those with less, who are willing to share their lives and beliefs and who have been ignored by the press for decades. The new Appalachian elite and the authentic cultural survivalist do not usually mix.

Martha and Dog, 2016

Kizzie and Martha in Pink Room, 2008

There are still great needs.

Some take advantage
Others resent those who give
And those who take.

Folks not valued are abandoned.
Over the years these practices have further
Separated us.

Tina, 2014

 In our rural towns there are government-subsidized housing projects that many country folk abhor. I’ve talked with families that have lived in the town housing projects and they are usually dissatisfied, returning to the rural hollers as soon as they can. Having dishwashers, central heat and hot water is more convenient, but many just simply don’t like living in apartments so close to one another. Country folk are accustomed to living on larger land parcel’s with quieter more independent environments than government urban designers ever consider.

Dan and Jip, 2012

Violet and  Mary,  2012

Violet, 2018

David and Joey,  2015

Three, 2013

Trailer on  Mountain, 2014

 The portrait can be revealing, it can present something from the essence of the subject and place before us, stirring up, catching, and defining a part of what we are together. A narrative is not essential and often can be distracting. It is the mirroring, self-discovery reflecting, and exchange that photographs provide—that is vital. We are each other. It is that interconnecting, that arouses us to look and ultimately look away.

                                                      —Shelby Lee Adams

Oma's Kitchen Window, 2013

Jacobs Window, 2013

View from Aunt Sally's Porch, 2012

Oma's Bible with Copper spindles, 2012

Those Unseen

To many rural folk, unconventional behavior and independence are still seen as an acceptable part of the complete person. Some more religiously minded believe a family member’s actions and outward aspects are to be received and blessed as a part of God's plan, so long as they do no harm to another. They believe that whatever one’s abilities or challenges, one can develop coping mechanisms with spiritual strengths and insights: Practicing, “One’s given Humanity is one’s callin’.” 

Acceptance is heartfelt, yet sometimes it is difficult to see and look upon another’s limitations and conditions. From visiting diverse families over the years, it becomes obvious some need an abundance of care, protection and recognition, perhaps even never-ending assistance. Our eyes are "A window to our depths.” I can't emphasize enough how vital a nonjudgmental eye and sincere recognition is to truly perceive and even value another different from ourselves. Kindness and empathy contribute on this journey. I share and make my photographs with my subjects, and we talk, searching to find common ground.

 Familiarity and true acceptance are achieved by visiting over and over. Visiting plays a key role in how we overcome our discomfort and in those we visit accepting us. We eventually gain strength defeating the fear and awkward emotions we initially felt. My time spent photographing with those different, reminiscent of some from my own family, has helped me to accept others who are withdrawn more empathetically. Difficult as it may be, my longing and desire for a compassionate reception of our holler people’s photographs is what I yearn to pass on to viewers.

Bruce, 2016

Leona, 2016

Debbie and Ray, 2014

Corrine and Selina, 2015

Nay Bug, 2009

Hillside Burial, 2012

House of Tin, 2002


Jeremiah, 2017

Hopefully, we have learned from our grandfathers who sold our mountain’s mineral rights years ago for fifty cents an acre, signing deeds when many of them couldn’t read. This created controversy; we resented those who took from us unfairly, further isolating ourselves. What we didn’t see plainly then, our coal, was taken by the federal courts approving broad form deeds, held by outside companies. Maybe our holler people’s ways and character—the last of something special, will still somehow prove worthy.

Will our authentic culture be preserved absurdly in an Appalachian theme park somewhere, or be seen as a unique culture with great compassion? To meet future challenges, communicating and educating ourselves is vital. Now is the time to envision our prospects. 

Noble Boy's, 2014

Billy with Coonskins, 2004

Sherman's Great Grand Baby, Nevaeh, 2017

Robin Jean, 2011

Freddies Barn Door, 2012

Chavies Clouds, 2013

The Blue Bottle, 2014

Hazard Night, 2012

Jerry and Baby, 2014

Melissa, 2014

Debbie and Rooster, 2011

Adam Dean, 2003
[Original Kodachrome]

Three Sisters, 2011

          Religion is at the core of many rural people’s lives, with plenty or poor, young or old, drunk or sober. Life here is enriched by faith. Economics has little to do with faith. But, faith sustains these people more than anything. Those outside our culture often ignore our religious beliefs. It’s easier to see the lack of material goods and not know a person’s inner strength. Skeptics say they can’t understand our people, and why they don’t leave the mountains for a better life, not acknowledging our land, culture or religion. 

          For many young people living in the hollers today, if they don’t “vote right,” and support the powers that have “always been,” their symbolic bridge linking them and their children to the modern world may never materialize. When some venture to town, they feel uncomfortable, townies “talking above them and barely’ lookin,’ or speakin,’ at you.” Over generations some town folk have perfected this art of intimidation, which they may whole-heartedly deny. Some youths from the hollers move forward and endure, others leave the area, still others drift and procrastinate, drink, and now concoct batches of homemade drugs using Sudafeds, wasp spray, Red Devil Lye, ether, lithium batteries and whatnot. The dark often draws attention over-shadowing the light. But, our old time religion is always their, comforts and always awaits us. I also grew up here unseen, so I know these stings as truths to overcome.

Some will take advantage of our young or dismiss them, but the young will always have more to give than most can perceive. Can they persevere, move forward and serve themselves and their children? I continually discover that they, the mountain and holler youths, are strong, rich in heart, very generous, and soulful. They will find their place to live in this world. 

Teressa, 2014

Susan and Son, 2014 

Susann and Son, 14, Susann is a young tattooed woman, a single parent, raising her son on Coon Creek. She says, “What little of our culture is left, many look down on. Today, It’s more important to take a picture of yourself than our beautiful mountains. Snapchat is widespread here because it’s images disappear, we like that, because we don’t know where were are going. 

My closest kin, all she wants is her Marlboro’s, a Coke and pain pills. My grandma’s homemade quilts are much like my tattoos. Every little piece is a memory from your life. Life often hurts. I love my butterfly tattoo. Symbolically, it is beautiful. The skull means life. Everyday we die some. Honey, I don’t know—the old ones say, the end time is coming. I don’t have (much) self-esteem; I home school my boy because we both have anxiety disorder. A vulnerable soft person needs to take something, to feel different from life’s pain. We desire and pretty much live off the grid here.

You have to forgive your assailants to move on yourself. Death is the one thing for certain and all parts of life are sacred. My journey from being damaged to becoming whole is to rise above. My tattoos, some like, some do not. Some see them as a platform to condemn. I wanted people to look at me. I’ve had to quit jobs because of my tattoos. I sometimes get dirty judgmental looks. Some ask don’t those tattoos hurt, for me it’s a way to heal.”

Chromia Halloween, 2017

Halloween, 2014

Sarah, 2014

The Fan, 2014

I recognize that we each may see the same things quite differently. After 40 years of visiting and photographing many individuals and families one becomes interconnected. You learn there is no insider/outsider perspective, no just black and white, instead a deepening of warmth and heart felt connections are established. You grow seeing the darkness and the light, sharing a love for the lot. It is an evolving passionate closeness of what is. This new body of work represents a lifetime of searching and building relationships.



Additional Work 

Neon Family Drugstore, 2019

Martha and Grape Vine, 2014

Shelby on Delphi Mountain, 85

Jerry at Brother James's Funeral, '09

Donna, 2013

Lee "Boy" Sexton, 2012

O thou afflicted, tossed with tempest, and not comforted, behold, I will lay thy stones with fair colors, and lay thy foundations with sapphires.

Isaiah 54:11

Respect distance but also work to overcome it.
Gabriel Josipovici

Hazard Fog, 2014

Kentucky Highway 15, 2011

              A lot of people here live a fragile reality. We need to see clearly, sharing open-handedly our universal common humanity with love and kindness. Can we become more accepting of each other?

—Shelby Lee Adams




Color Photography Workshop Images:
All photos made by Shelby during or for photo workshops.

Crow, photo made at Herman Melville Home, Arrowhead, 2017

Marlena, 2010, Venice Beach, CA
Julia Dean Workshops

Bethesda Fountain, Central Park, NYC
International Center of Photography Workshop
Environmental Portraiture

Models: Kelly and Dale, Spring 2012
Palm Springs Photo Workshop/Festival

Larissa Marie, 2013
"Finding Your Voice with Lighting"
International Center of Photography
Studio, NYC
Photography Workshop - Jan. 2013

Tompkins Square Park, NYC
Aperture Workshop, July 2013

Lila and Thoth Angelique, Central Park performance artist, photographed during Environmental Portrait Workshop for ICP, NYC, 2013

Valerie, 2014
The Colorado Photographic Arts Center, Denver, CO

Chloe, 2014
ICP Summer Workshop, Central Park, NYC

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All photographs and text copyrighted - © 2009-20 Shelby Lee Adams, legal action will be taken to represent the photographer, the work taken out of context, subjects and integrity of all photographic and written works, including additional photographers published and authors quoted. Permissions - send e mail request with project descriptions.