Shelby Lee Adams was born in Hazard, a small town in eastern Kentucky. Although he grew up in the back seat of his father's car, moving from place to place, he settled near Hot Spot, living with his grandparents while he attended high school. Trapped between the worlds of country and town kids, Adams never fit in, immersing himself in photography books and anything affiliated with the arts.
This was the mid 1960s and the Peace Corps had a great interest in the poverty sweeping the people of Appalachia. When a film crew visited his home town, Adams naturally wanted to help, taking them to his meet his grandparents and his uncle so they could film their daily lives. When the media described them as malnourished and poor, his friends and family felt betrayed. This devastated Adams, who felt he had misled the people he so dearly loved -- an experience that had a profound impact on him, leading him to photograph the people of Appalachia.
It wasn't until he left Kentucky and attended the Cleveland Institute of Art that he understood the lessons he learned from the country people. Finally surrounded by artists, he experienced a complete culture shock, rejecting his Appalachian upbringing, telling people he was from Cincinnati. Embarrassed by his past, Adams stayed away from Hazard and his family, searching for a new identity. By the second year in college, Adams was exposed to the FSA photographers who were sent to the South to document people who were living in hardship. Although initially defensive about the FSA work, Adams submerged himself in documentary books, showing them to his family on a summer visit. His uncle, a county doctor, took him on house calls to meet people similar to the ones in the books. More than twenty five years later, Shelby Lee Adams is still visiting these people, returning year after year, documenting their lives.
In his new works, Adams introduces us to families who have moved out of the remote mountain areas into trailer parks, where electricity and satellite dishes dominate the landscape. Whether photographing a father and child surrounded by their cows, a family gathering on a porch during Halloween or an older couple posing with their dog in front of a new satellite dish, Adams's images are so raw we want to both turn away and stare. That Adams returns to the mountains year after year is a testament to his dedication to show their challenging existence while maintaining their dignity. Although he now lives in Massachusetts, Shelby Lee Adams's heart is forever in Appalachia.