Photo by Deena Fitzpatrick
Adams with his subject, Frankie Stidham, this year.
At the base of the mountain where Lost Creek’s headwaters lay, there is a simple, rustic trailer set back in the trees. The ground is littered with Tootsie Roll wrappers, the sky framed by massive poplar trees. Shelby Lee Adams steps up to the porch amid the cats and dog and knocks on the door, calling into the darkened home of Frankie Stidham.
Frankie, now 97 years old, is the subject of one of Adams’ most iconic photographs, “Frankie with Shucky Beans,” taken in 2002. The photo—shot in black and white, which has long been the main medium of Adams’ images of Appalachia—pictures the woman in a simple dress, standing against a wall of grain-streaked boards, holding the strung and dried green beans, with several other bundles of them hung at her shoulder. The image is included in Salt & Truth, his fourth book, published in 2011.
When Frankie steps out on the porch, she comes slowly, leaning on a hand-carved cane. She shakes my hand and asks me, carefully, “Do you like this country?” Shelby asks her if she likes Tootsie Rolls, and of course, she does. She is frail, thin, wearing a bright green print dress and wool sweater, her stockings speckled with cat hair. But her mind is sharp, and she can still talk about how she used to go into the mountains looking for ginseng and other medicinal herbs. In fact, that once was a common activity for the people of Appalachia who, despite decades of negative stereotyping, have proven themselves not only survivors but frequently encyclopedic in their knowledge of eastern Kentucky’s geography and botany.
Shelby leans against the railing of the porch, asking Frankie about who is taking care of her. In the aging house set just below Frankie’s trailer lives one of her great-grandchildren, who returned from a stint in California to live back home, a country that is simply paradise to a people who have lived in and identified with these mountains for generations.
But Adams knows, too, that times are changing in the landscape where he himself was born and grew up in a “holler” in Letcher County. “We’re in a very strong time of change here,” he says later. “Frankie’s 97 years old, from the generation of my grandparents. Theirs was a different, more self-sufficient world. Today in our mountains, we have a lot more imposition by the coal industry, by the Internet, by satellites, and Appalachia is becoming much more like everywhere else. Part of my work—although not totally what I’m doing—is about recording Frankie’s world before it disappears. I am, I feel, photographing the whole tradition and the evolution and change, and it is changing very rapidly here.”
Though this suggests the approach of a documentarian or a photojournalist, Shelby is neither. He is an artist whose work has earned him a Guggenheim Fellowship, and his photographs are shown in galleries from New York to Chicago to Los Angeles and, just as importantly, in his subjects’ homes and churches. Adams—along with his supporters and admirers—sees his work on par with the great photographers of our age, including Edward Curtis, Richard Avedon and, his inspiration, Kentucky photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard.
Meatyard’s influence on Adams has perhaps less to do with his photos than his philosophy toward photography. To Meatyard, and to Adams, art is a vehicle of consciousness and awareness—and, hence, of spirituality. Adams’ goal is to subvert in himself, and by extension in the viewer of his photographs, what he calls the “automatic-pilot,” the knee-jerk conditioned responses we have when we are exposed to an image, especially of people we do not understand.
“Meatyard’s work, to me, meant a lot in that he’s trying to penetrate this ‘automatic pilot’ that we have conditioned our society to respond to,” Adams explains. “When people look at my pictures sometimes in galleries, either they’re moved profoundly to tears or they react very negatively instead of letting a flow happen. Art is about connection if we will allow ourselves to connect.”
What Adams is asking us to connect to are not only the people of the hollows but ourselves. His photographs can stir conflicted feelings as easily as compassion; however, the fact that the people depicted are seen by viewers as “poor” in no way means they are impoverished, at least not the way we think.
Take Brice and Crow, the first series of images Adams worked on in the early 1970s. The images depict members of a family that grew up in the same holler as Adams. The son, Brice, is Shelby’s age, and they went to school together. Adams witnessed the bullying that Brice received because, Shelby says, “he was different,” and Adams once was beaten up for defending him. It was this one act that Brice’s family remembered, and it allowed Adams the trust necessary to begin to photograph them.
Much of Adams’ own compassion comes, he says, from his mother, who taught him one of the most important Appalachian cultural values: Family is important, and if a family member is disadvantaged, then one holds him or her closer. Institutionalization, no matter how difficult the situation, was virtually unheard-of then and remains much the same today.
Another person important to Adams is his uncle, a country doctor. As a child and teenager, Adams accompanied his uncle on house calls, which enabled him to experience people’s lives in eastern Kentucky. “The poverty, for me, is something I grew up with, and—it might be a blind spot—I don’t really see it myself. I don’t see my people as downtrodden. I grew up in a holler with Brice and Crow. Yes, they lived differently than I did. Yes, they had a mule they rode, and they didn’t have a car like my father did, but I never ever grew up seeing the poverty that many journalists and photojournalists write about,” Adams says.
Although he admits the culture in eastern Kentucky is changing, he also says, “What is not changing is how we as a society and culture view certain parameters of humanity that we define as disadvantaged. We tend to label and stereotype that part of our culture. The mountain people I know are warmly accepting of others. Because my uncle was a doctor who tended and assisted and helped some people in dire conditions—and this has absolutely nothing to do with poverty and politics—how society in the broader picture deals with the disadvantaged is, to me, reprehensible.
“I believe that to calmly see another, to shake hands, to sit looking into another’s face and eyes, is the beginning of mutual friendship. A photograph can help us easily familiarize ourselves to each other, from all economic and social positions.”
Much of Adams’ views spring from his coming of age in the 1960s during President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty. At the time, via television and magazines, Americans were exposed to the living conditions in Appalachia—but not deeply to the people or their culture. Adams believes, though, that a person’s childhood and upbringing influence how he sees such images. For example, to someone who grew up in Los Angeles and its accompanying culture of Hollywood and relative affluence, the living arrangements of eastern Kentucky would seem barren and neglected by comparison. The automatic pilot of our conditioning becomes, unfortunately, a cultural mainstream, and we see underprivileged people as something less than ourselves.
“The mainstream is resistant,” declares Adams, “and my job as a visual artist, as a human being, is to try and break down some of that resistance.”
Adams, who lives and teaches in Massachusetts, comes to Kentucky once or twice a year to visit friends and take photographs. On this particular spring day, he knocks on the door of Jerry Napier, the last of the Napiers in Perry County. The Napiers are the subject of one of Adams’ most extensive family studies, a family he has photographed for decades. Today, Jerry lives in a building with small windows and a cinderblock stoop. He usually can be found, neighbors say, waiting at the bridge at the mouth of the holler for someone to take him to the local market, The Blue Goose, for malt liquor and cigarettes.
When Jerry comes out at last, he is happy to see Shelby. Shelby is amazed to see that Jerry has shaved his head, which he just did the night prior—the pile of hair still lays in the grass beside the step. Adams intuitively asks Jerry to let him make a portrait, and when Jerry agrees, Shelby methodically sets up his lighting as he converses, posing Jerry before the wooden front door. The photographs Adams takes of Jerry, rich in detail and using digital color—his new medium—are meant to reveal Jerry not only as a dignified human being but also as an extension of ourselves.
Back in his Hazard hotel room, Shelby prints the image of Jerry he has chosen to exemplify his notion of how viewers respond to some of his images. “If you look at a picture of Jerry,” Shelby asks, “do we look at him and objectify or distance ourselves? If we look at him with compassion in the heart and mindfulness, then we find ourselves relating.
“I’d like people to see that picture with awareness. If we’re aware or look at it with more kindness or sensitivity, then we realize that Jerry is the way he is because of us. If the whole community considers him just a drunk, they disassociate and dehumanize him because that’s what society automatically does, and he accepts that role. Society has got to see itself as interconnected. I’d rather people look at my pictures with some sense of connection and more acceptance.
“What we look like to other people is not always what we are. If we look inward at ourselves with awareness and compassion as we gaze outwardly at others, we can see with more depth, kindness and connection.”
As Adams himself admits, the feeling of this connection is not always comfortable for the viewer. But to undertake self-analysis, as he does through his own exploration of the culture that shaped him, is to realize that communities interrelate in eastern Kentucky the same way they do anywhere else. Adams is documenting what it is to be human—not merely poor, or troubled. “But also to celebrate rural life,” Shelby says, “a life fully lived, and that can be anywhere. In the hollers there is much joy and happiness experienced and shared over very simple blessings, like having a solid roof over one’s head, a baby born or a child healed from fever, or having one’s cow birth a beautiful calf. All these things celebrate life fully lived, and that keeps me returning.” This, he insists, is both a life study and a life’s work—and an ongoing picture of our mutual lives.
Much of what Adams calls the “interconnectivity” evident in his work came about by accident. In 1984, a fall left him temporarily paralyzed in one of his hips and legs, and a year’s recovery time meant he was unable to photograph, as he had for 10 years. But the injury turned out to be a boon.
Typically, Adams had photographed his subjects on their porches, in well-lit areas. But he found he needed their help simply to carry and set up his large-format 4x5 camera, so the people he photographed helped him. At that point, he says, they really began to understand how serious he was—which affirmed their trust in him.
At that time, he also began to ask them where they wanted to be photographed. “I had gone from ’74 to ’84 thinking I knew best,” Adams remembers. “I’d studied Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange up to Lee Friedlander and Diane Arbus, and of course, Meatyard, and I realized—it took a couple years for me to come to this—that I was not totally engaging and interconnecting. I got some good images, and I feel proud of much of the work I did at that time, but it wasn’t a deep, collaborative, interconnecting experience. In 1985, I started asking people, simply, ‘Where do you want to be photographed?’ This opened people up, allowing them to participate and enjoy the collaboration even more.”
The people Adams photographed became more a part of the process. They wanted to be photographed in a place they were familiar with, often inside their homes—this got Adams into lighting environments. He also asked his subjects about objects, pets or animals they wanted to be pictured with, a direct approach that works especially well with children. “I’m going to get the best picture where they’re the most comfortable,” Adams says, “and they’re going to be comfortable with the most comfortable things.”
The people of the mountains, in essence, became a part of the process of their own depiction, which was important to them as they insisted Adams not portray them as “poor.” It is to his credit that he has never done so. “I’m exploring my life and my subjects’ lives,” he says. “Others say, ‘Your pictures are all the same.’ I see a lot of diversity in what I’m doing. Every holler has a different atmosphere; every family has a different look. All the nuances I see and am aware of—I don’t lump people together.
“Our family porch pictures sometimes include a dozen members from one family. I also try and incorporate in the compositions something unique to each family, be that their musical instruments, their beloved hound dog, religious pictures, or anything that the family values. I see each portrait visit and session as uniquely individual, and I try to enhance and represent that diverse humanity. Everyone’s different. Our mountains hold an incredibly varied humanity within its territory. That fascinates me. I’ve always been interested in the unknown, the unconscious, people who have their own inner place and their own world. This is a land supporting many individualists.
“I’ve always felt,” he continues, “that whatever we focus on, whatever we decide to photograph, what we’re trying to find out about is ourselves and who we are. I consider myself to be like a field worker. A field worker is someone who goes into an environment and doesn’t have a conceptual idea or an automatic notion. You respond to what and whom you find in the moment. You know, life is in continual flux. You have to be open to discovery and to your own vision, and I feel that’s kept me going.”
To view Shelby Lee Adams' work, visit shelby-lee-adams.blogspot.com