Shelby Lee Adams is based in western Massachusetts and eastern Kentucky. He holds degrees from the Massachusetts College of Art, University of Iowa, and the Cleveland Institute of Art. His career has focused on photographs of the Appalachian region in Kentucky, for which he has received broad acclaim. His work is held in numerous significant permanent collections, including those of the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. He has also received several prestigious awards, including fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Continuing in the tradition of iconic documentary photographers of the Depression era, Adams began his career photographing the people of his native Appalachia using black-and-white film. Yet Adams does not identify himself as a true documentary photographer, but as one who has been seeking to find truths about himself and the things that connect us all as humans. He describes his work as autobiographical, people-oriented, personal, and subjective, with humanistic and artistic concerns. Recently, he has shifted away from the black-and-white documentary film tradition to make digital photographs in color.
Martha and Kizzie in Pink Room (2008), for example, uses color to present an alternative look at his subjects’ Appalachian homes. In it, two elderly women are surrounded in their home by pink walls, flowered prints, and knickknacks. Martha and Kizzie are sisters and Martha has cared for Kizzie, who is blind, since she was sixteen. Adams has known the women for decades and previously photographed them in black-and-white. For this photograph, he asked Martha why she had painted their living room bright pink and she asserted that Kizzie likes being surrounded by bright and pretty colors. Adams’s photograph reveals the sisters’ shared love for feminine decoration in a way not possible in black-and-white photography, allowing the viewer to delight in the women’s love of the decorative. Though their faces convey solemn expressions, their surroundings divulge an exuberance hidden somewhere within.
In Barbara, 103 Years Old (2014), Adams uses color to convey an internal, humanizing warmth in the sitter. The kitchen wall behind the woman is painted a strong mustard color. This is a vibrant, natural hue, but it is not especially glamorous or fancy. The same could be said of Barbara, who is alert and smiling contentedly but dressed simply with no frills. A framed reproduction of Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington hangs just behind her. Washington has long been a symbol of noble restraint because of his refusal to take on a third term as president in order to preserve a peaceful transfer of power to a successor. His portrait ennobles Barbara, suggesting that she too is a figure of restrained self-sacrifice, having lived a life without notoriety or luxuries, but still holding a vibrant inner character.
Preacher Dillard (2012) is a portrait of a man who was a bank robber in his youth, but who—after serving five years in prison—became a “fire and brimstone” preacher. Adams photographed Dillard inside the one-room shrine he had built above the grave of his only son, Roger, who was struck dead by lightning at age twenty-six. Adams’s photograph emphasizes the constrained space by tucking the preacher’s head tightly into the angle of the ceiling corner with a hanging plant swinging uncomfortably close. This forces the viewer into intimate proximity with the preacher’s intense stare. His hands and shoulders are at rest, but his eyes carry a warning that reverberates through other signs in the small space: the framed image of Christ on the cross and the gun tucked into the preacher’s pants. Adams reports that Dillard buried his young son with a jar of water, a pistol, a stack of cash, and a Bible so he “could have some water to drink in Hell, shoot or buy his way out of eternal damnation and pray his way into Heaven.” Mr. Dillard’s direct stare confronts the viewer. Adams’s vivid portraits expand the documentary tradition, offering new insights into the lives of everyday people of Appalachia.