“A lot of my work is visiting,” says photographer Shelby Lee Adams. “A quarter is actually photographing.”
In fact, Adams has spent some 30 years visiting and building relationships with the people in and around Hazard, a small city in eastern Kentucky where he was born.
The visits started well before he was a photographer. As a young boy, Adams would tag along with his uncle, a country doctor, tending to families tucked up in mountain hollows, or “hollers.”
“When you go into a holler,” Adams says on the phone, “it’s not a normal day. You may go somewhere and someone’s grandma is lying on the bed dying. Another woman down the road might be about to deliver a baby.”
And after almost four decades of this, Adams has seen it all: life and death, love and hate — and what he calls Salt & Truth, the title of his newly released fourth book.
“Today, it is becoming more difficult to find actual salt-of-the-earth people,” he writes in the book’s introduction. “They are disappearing as we are overrun by a more sugarcoated society. … Salt preserves wholesomeness and prevents decay. Salt lasts. And these hard-formed people from earlier times are still here, even as their population declines.”
There’s no doubt about his sincerity and passion for this place and its people. Although his work, which straddles a fine line between art and documentary, has come under some scrutiny through the years.
“Critics argue that his photography exploits the poverty and disempowerment in Appalachia and reproduces negative stereotypes,” writes Dr. Lisa Wade, a professor of sociology at Occidental College. There’s contention about how his photos are posed — maybe even staged. How few smiles there are. How dark it feels.
Adams counters that each photo is a collaborative process with the subjects. “With my personal work I take my time,” he says. “I really talk and get to know the people. … It’s the depth of having real relationships.”
These days, Adams spends most of his time living in Massachusetts, but he travels back to Kentucky in the summers to photograph. Like most photographers, he makes ends meet with other work as an industrial photographer. But his passion is Kentucky.
“Their lives are different but not necessarily less complicated than ours,” he says. “That’s the beauty of this work. They accept themselves as they are.”
An exhibition of photos from Salt & Truth has been on display at Candela Gallery in Richmond, Va., since December, and is open through Saturday.