Salt & Truth

Shelby Lee Adams
Candela Books, 2011

Reviewed by Daniel W Coburn

Issue 33

Shelby Lee Adams was born and raised for a significant portion of his childhood in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky. For the past thirty five years Adams has returned to the hollers of Appalachia to make photographs of the people that are his friends and inspiration. A majority of the eighty photographs contained in his most recent monograph Salt and Truth were made in the last seven years.

The artist is interested in the "salt of the earth" mountain people that continue to shape his own identity and he has succeeded in chronicling their disappearing lifestyle. These most recent photographs document how the hollers have changed. These changes are due to the encroachment of mainstream culture. The photographs show us remnants of antiquated mountain life, littered with the artifacts of an intruding, modern pop culture. It's a world where satellite dishes are placed next to chimneys and graphic t-shirts are only partially covered by the straps and buttons of denim overalls.

On the surface, many of these images seem like a stereotypical portrayal of hillbilly life. However, upon closer examination one realizes that Adams' approach is empathetic and it becomes apparent that he is interested in each person's unique presence. Each photograph represents a collaboration on the part of photographer and sitter. He makes a preliminary series of polaroid images so each of his subjects can instantly see their likeness and have input on how they are being portrayed in the final photograph. This results in an art making process that is built on trust, participation and mutual empathy.

These images show us a series of faces. Some of them are dirty and some of them are clean, but each of them are determined and this becomes apparent in the way that each person confronts the camera. In the image Dan, Krissy, and Leddy we see the porcelain-like skin of youth framed by the furrows, fissures and creases on the hardened faces of those with experience. This image becomes a metaphor for hope. In Adams' portrait Lloyd Dean with Family and Coal Truck the viewer is presented with three generations of Appalachian men. These iconic figures become a symbol for the past, present and future of the holler. There are images of infants, the elderly and the tragedy of death. In many instances people are photographed with their animals which represent either companionship or sustenance. This mosaic of portraits represents the enduring spirit, and determination of a people and culture that is endangered, yet ever-present in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky.

This 128 page hardbound volume includes essays written James Enyeart, Catherine Evans, and Shelby Lee Adams. Evans and Enyeart provide insightful dialog about Adams' approach to the documentary image and the historical tradition of portrait photographers that precede him. The writings by Adams are intelligent and candid, providing the reader with details about his personal artistic philosophy and inspirations. As always, Adams' images possess a high level of craftsmanship and are beautifully reproduced. This book will make a beautiful and unique contribution to your library.


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Daniel W. Coburn is a photographer and graduate student at the University of New Mexico.
To view Daniel's photography, please visit his website. Daniel was featured in Fraction Issue 20.