Wednesday, November 16, 2011

I have issues with Shelby Lee Adam's work

Shelby Lee Adam’s photo essay, which appeared in a recent November issue of the New York Times, is entitled “Exposures: Salt and Light” and was taken from his latest book, salt and light.  The compelling photos are stark images in black and white. 

Mr. Adams has acquired quite a reputation as a photographer.   I have no trouble acknowledging that he is very talented. 

However, I have to wonder what motivates Mr. Adams to seek out the most “colorful” people in eastern Kentucky to photograph, then splash their images across the New York Times, of all places?

That’s a dumb question, I know. 

The New York Times?  The man has obviously arrived. 

However, being a native of the mountains himself, surely Adams is smart enough to recognize that his photos will result in additional ridicule for poor mountain people. 

 Doesn’t he know a cosmopolitan audience will shake their heads in disdain that such a primitive population still exists in this country? 

Won’t this audience be afraid to venture anywhere east of I-75 in Kentucky, sure that they’ll wind up amongst savages?

 Maybe I’m being overly-sensitive and defensive because I have my own preconceptions about what “outsiders” think about us. 

I’ll not argue for a second that the faces in the photographs aren’t real.  They look very familiar to me, although I was brought up a few ridges west of the Hazard area. 

Heck, if some big-city reporter were to sneak up on me when I’m out in the garden, sweaty with hair askew, wearing my mismatched uniform of apron, muck boots and shapeless t-shirt, and ask me to pose against a weathered building—why, I’d probably blend right into the pages of salt and light too. 

Or I could clean up for a Glamour Shot, and you probably wouldn’t recognize me either. 

On his website, Adams features pictures of his subjects holding his new book.  Apparently he gives them copies before they are made available to the public. Generally, the holler dwellers look pretty delighted with themselves.

Maybe I’m completely wrong about Shelby Lee Adams.  Maybe he is just that proud of the poorest among us. 

Maybe the misrepresentation comes from the New York Times.  The choice of which photos to publish can make quite a statement in itself. 

Maybe this work wasn’t the exhaustive search for anything stereotypically hillbilly that I first thought it was.   

On his website, Adams laments that “it is becoming more difficult to find the authentic salt-of-the-earth people.”   

That saddens me too.  I like authentic people. 

But I guess that’s kind of my whole point.  Adam’s subjects aren’t representative of the whole population of these hollers, if the holler he grew up in is anything like the holler I grew up in, and I’m pretty sure they are similar. 

In my neck of the woods, we have people who drive nice vehicles, as well as those who drive rusty clunkers.  We have people living in big nice houses and folks who live in run-down shacks and trailers.

Some diligently tend to their yards and property and others have apparently never carted away a piece of trash in their entire lives. 

We have rich folk with no money, and we have poor folk with plenty.  Sometimes these differences correlate with the amount of money or education folks have, sometimes they don’t. 

Why are the more well-to-do neighbors not featured in this book?  Good grief, why aren’t the humble-but-clean-and-tidy folk not featured in this essay?  How about a little bit more light to go with that salt? 

Adams says in the foreword to his photo essay that he has “experienced cultural diversity and continue[s] to travel between two worlds, the hollers and cities.”  

Maybe so, but I don’t see how his work accurately reflects the diversity contained within the hollers. 

I see representations of tired stereotypes that are misleading to a dominant culture and most likely has them fearful of ever coming around these parts to see for themselves how the majority of us live.


  1. Well said. Thank you for speaking out. I grow so tired of stereotypes in general, Southern stereotypes in particular. KY is one of my favorite places on earth.

  2. Hello Lisa, again another insightful post. I came over to comment on your previous post and realized you had a new post so had to take time to catch up!

    Wanted to send an email to enquire about your grandson but couldn't find an email address on your sidebar. Do you give that out? If so would you send it to me at:

    About your previous brought back soooo many memories of my life on the farm. I left Ky when I was 12 yrs old and even tho my sisters keep asking when not if I'm moving back...I am yet to agree that I will ever move back. I do love the fact that somehow its easier to slow down when I go there and the simplest chores bring with them a calmness when they are done. But I guess I just haven't felt the Lord directing me to make a permanent move there. The old home place has long been gone and where my mom lives now was never home to me so I don't have memories like you describe. And like my older sisters have. It's one of those things where I scratch my head and wonder what God's plan is. Why am I the only one of the nine children that did not move back? I am planning to spend the winter up there with my Mom, if its the Lord's Will that I do so. I'm just now at the end of my first weeks surgery recovery and will have to go later than originally thought so I'm just waitin on the Lord which I've come to not a bad place to be at all!
    Until later...Vicki

  3. The dichotomy in your post is spot-on; people are so much more than their photographs, and I don't think a photograph can truly, accurately portray anything. Even if it's a candid shot. An observer can never feel the full impact of the event, even if it's just as simple as holding a book.
    Having said that, you've piqued my interest so tomorrow I'll check out the NYTimes article.

  4. Vickie, you'll know what to do, when you need to do it. Kentucky is wonderful, but home can be anywhere, can't it?

    Molly Jo, you are so right. Who can ever say for sure what is going on inside a person based on a photograph? Let me know what you think about the Times article.

    Thank you both for your comments.

  5. Salt of the earth is more fascinating and inspiring than a rich person in a city.