Sunday, May 20, 2012

Updated Oct.24, 2019


              In 1974 I started working with 35MM Kodachrome slide film while photographing with 4 x 5 black and white traditional films and Polaroid materials. Many have seen the published black and white work in my books, but not the color. During the last 10 years throughout my visits back home I have been concentrating more on color, transferring older color film to digital while continuing to photograph new work in digital color. I transferred exclusively to digital color by 2010, when Polaroid materials were no longer available. 

              Not having the 4x5 Polaroid prints to share and study collaboratively with my friends and subjects in the field, led to my transition of photographing now totally in digital color. That is not to say that I view color as superior to black and white or one as more valued than the other; both represent different ways of seeing and relating. But, with the digital backs and a magnifying loop I can share with my friends on location something of what the camera is recording, later returning to give my subjects prints as I've always done. I still print all my black and white photography  for friends, publications, exhibitions and collectors. When making new photographs today, I now work exclusively in color digital. Yet, I regularly find new negatives to print traditionally in black and white from my 40 year archive.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 
                     I feel my color photographs represent a significant part of myself and my friends lives, so I've  titled this work, The Book of Life. Photographs made in my native area now for over four generations. Color and black and white both touch, express, recall and memorialize different experiences and places within our core humanity. It is the relationships and genuine friendships established along the way that are as richly rewarding as the pictures themselves. I hope that the viewer can experience these images in a positive heartfelt manner.

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

Excerpts from the Color Work

The photographer's current color imagery is divided into four  themes with a brief introduction.

Those No More

Middle Age

Those Unseen




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 beside a Chromaluxe test print. A select few images are available in the Chromaluxe process, printed on aluminum  32 x 40 inch size.

 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 and 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 required me to sign before allowing me to photograph him. 2012

Preacher Dillard’s Story. 2012

            I met and photographed Dillard only once. Friends 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 28th2012. 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.

He was 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. 

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. 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 28thand we were there photographing on 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. Before leaving he gave me a new Bible with a chapter and verse marked with an unfolded $100 bill from 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

Oma, 14 [mother]

Learion and Son, 14

John and Truck, 17 [son]

Ronnie and 4-Wheeler, 14

Walter, 2017

Martha and Kizzie in Pink Room, 2008

Roy, 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.”

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, and the poor continue receiving the same 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 misrepresented in the press for decades. The Appalachian elite and the authentic mountain cultural survivalist do not often mix.

Chicken Roost, 2019

Cats and Refrigerator, 2018

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.

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

Dan and Jip, 2012

Violet and  Mary,  2012

Violet, 2018

David and Joey,  2015

John and Truck, 2017

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


Additional Work

Oma, 2014

Halloween, 2014

Tina, 2014

Martha and Grape Vine, 2014

Noble Boy's on 4-Wheeler, 2014

Hazard Night, 2014

Jeremiah, 2017

Ellis, 1989

Bruce, 2013


Saul and Wife, 2013

Martha in Kitchen, 2010

Robin, 2011

Shelby on Delphi Mountain, 85

The Doll Bed, '95

Oma's Bible with Copper Spindles, 2012

Roy at age 80, holding 1 month old baby, 2013

Martha and Kizzie in Bedroom, 2013

Three, 2013

Jerry at Brother James's Funeral, '09

Nay Bug, '09

Donna, 2013

Frankie [age 95], 2012

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

Three Sisters, 2011

"Truck run good when I parked it their in 1976," 2013

Wrecker, 2016

Jacob's Window, 2013

Oma's Kitchen, 2013

View from Aunt Sally's Porch, 2012

Hillside Burial, 2012 

Thieves will be Shot, '08
Barwick, KY

Kentucky Highway 15, 2011

A lot of people resent our poor, dismissing their fragile reality. We need to see clearly, bridge and share 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 - © 2009-19 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.