Striking portraits of life in the Appalachian Mountains

Striking portraits of life in the Appalachian Mountains
Taken between 1974 and 2010, Shelby Lee Adams’ collaborative portraits are a love letter to an often maligned community.

When photographer Shelby Lee Adams was growing up in the 1950s and early 60s, he and his parents would regularly move up and down the East Coast of the United States as his father worked as a natural gas engineer. But every summer, they would travel to the Appalachian mountains of Eastern Kentucky, to a place called Johnson’s Fork – a thin valley, or 'holler' as they are locally known, where his grandparents lived and farmed the land.

Both Adams' sets of grandparents lived in the same holler, so he would have the rule of the roost. “My grandfather was a mountain farmer and he had 400 acres of farmland, and his property joined my other grandfather’s property,” Adams says. “So it was a huge boundary of property – mostly mountainous, not very valuable but certainly for a child to grow up on and run around and play with horses, cows and dogs that was idyllic for me.”

Despite the fairytale setting, family tensions bubbled beneath the surface. His father, who was earning a good wage, would speak condescendingly about the traditionally agricultural, less-moneyed people of the hollers, often describing their neighbours as “no-count” and “lazy.” His mother would often argue back, saying that he was “no better than them.” When his father was out, she would take Adams’ old clothes to local families who were struggling so they could wear them in school, and make her young son swear that he wouldn’t tell his father.

Top to bottom: Hardshell Caney Creek, [image made photographing through plexi-glass when raining], 2007 © Shelby Lee Adams. Merle, Hindman, 1985 © Shelby Lee Adams.

“I grew up in the War on Poverty era that President Lyndon B. Johnson initiated, and at the same time the Vietnam War was big in the USA. There were a lot of people who believed that the President started the War on Poverty so they wouldn’t be focused on Vietnam,” Adams alleges. “That was always a topic of disagreement between them, and I grew up being really sympathetic to the mountain people.

“I think that contrast between my mother and father probably led a great deal to why I became a photographer committed to going back and photographing these people,” he continues.

Having picked up a camera in the early 70s, Adams has been returning to Eastern Kentucky every summer since 1974, where he has been making striking, intimate portraits of people who live among the mountains and valleys. A series of those photographs, taken between 1974 and 2010, have been collated in his new photobook From the Heads of the Hollers. The black-and-white photographs are a window into the lives and conditions for the “mountain people,” while also acting as a love letter to a community much overlooked and maligned by people like Adams’ father.

With many in the Eastern Kentucky mountains living off subsistence farming and earning few wages from elsewhere, the War on Poverty – and the urge to highlight these kinds of conditions – led to flocks of media hacks turning up to Appalachia in the 60s and 70s, asking questions and taking invasive photographs. “The problem was that people would get assignments to go to Appalachia and do a story on the poverty, but they were there to photograph the conditions, not the people,” explains Adams. “My approach was to reverse that and get to know the people first – what their problems are or what they are like, then from that you make pictures.”

Corrine, Bulan, 1979 © Shelby Lee Adams.

This human approach is what makes Adams’s photographs so compelling. Over decades he built close relationships by sharing dinners with his subjects, walking with them in the creeks and playing horseshoes with their children. In return, they gave him access to make such open, stark portraits. He even took those straightforward, collaborative processes and applied them to every level of his picture making methods.

“When I graduated, the first thing I did was get a 4x5 camera with Polaroid materials, so I was able to show my subjects what I was doing. The photograph I show them is a polaroid, and then they confirm that they like the Polaroid or if they don’t I don’t use it,” he says. “Mountain people are very generous and very open, but if you don’t approach them correctly or in a straightforward manner they can shut you down right away.

“There’s still some stereotypes and prejudice,” he continues. “But I’m trying to open that door. I’m trying to say: ‘Hey, these are all good people, let’s look and open ourselves to each other.’”

From the Heads of the Hollers by Shelby Lee Adams is published by GOST.

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