Kentucky-born photographer Shelby Lee Adams’ new book, Salt and Truth, was prominently featured in the Sunday November 13 New York Times. (Click here for the “Of Kentucky” slideshow they included. The new book has also been reviewed at ArtWeek L.A. PDN Magazine has selected it as a top ten notable photography book for 2011.)
Social media response around Kentucky was immediate, and ranged from enthusiasm to outrage, as it did with the release of 1998’s, Appalachian Legacy.
When Appalachian Legacy was published, Ace was invited to go along to Hazard, Kentucky for the book release party and homecoming picnic. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet and interview the book’s subjects for the July 8, 1998 Ace coverstory (some of whom are featured in the new book as well). A hand-lettered sign at the park welcomed “Riddle Family Reunion/Shelby’s Book Signing.” Before introductions could even be made, a groundhog sighting prefaced the festivities, and a chase ensued, prompting a family member to dryly observe, “Well, we needn’t have worried about entertainment.” This was followed by, “somebody oughtta introduce her to Henry before he gives out.”
Henry was Henry Collins. He was identified in Legacy as “sixty-six, a confirmed
bachelor, religious zealot, folk artist, philosopher, and pillar of the community.” (The photo of him and brother Hort praying is one of the most striking images in the book.) His advanced melanoma had impaired his ability to speak that day, but his first words to us (with the assistance of his wife Alice) was, “the Holiness Religion is the only thing to believe.” His first job was at nine years old, earning a dollar a day for 12-hour days during the Depression.
Rachel Riddle’s daughter, Pat, then dropped by our table to say, “we are lucky to have a friend like Shelby. He takes such pretty pictures.”
The family was gracious and welcoming, and the day was devoid of controversy, notwithstanding the grouchy groundhog, who did not like having his picture taken. The coverstory that followed — an account of the day in Hazard, with candid photos of those assembled, alongside images from the book (some disturbing, some beautiful, and some both) — generated dozens of love/hate letters and emails about Adams and his photography.
It’s been more than a decade since the release of that book. Adams has gone on to more exhibits, books, and a 2010 Guggenheim fellowship for photography.
Kentucky author and bookstore owner Crystal Wilkinson posted the NYT link to the Sunday slideshow on her facebook page, writing “Never quite sure how to feel about Shelby Lee Adams’ photographs though of course they are beautifully made…I grew up in the 70s with an outhouse up what most would call a holler but I didn’t see people who looked like this even with outdoor plumbing and poverty and weathered small homes and couches on their porches. There is something slightly askew about the portrayals but again well done and dark and poetic and definitely with a point of view. I just hope that people realize that there is a point of view being represented by the photographer. Of course each artist focuses their own eye on subject (be they photographer or painter or poet or novelist or musician) but…”
More than one reader added that their response to Adams’s work was the instinctive and reflexive “gritting of teeth,” but Kelly Reid weighed in on Wilkinson’s thread, “I studied Adams in an art class last semester and most of the criticism I read came from art critics and other ‘others’ who didn’t like the stereotypical portrayal of his subjects. As a ‘non-other,’ though (if I can claim that), I like seeing these pictures on the NY Times’ website. They may be a bit of a grotesque, but life in NYC is a grotesque itself – all those suits and skyscrapers and lights. At least the Kentucky folk have the time to look into the camera, eyeballs blazin’ the way they do. I personally love Adams, his work, his message, and even the exposure that comes of it all.”
The commentary continues.
Adams will exhibit at Louisville’s Paul Paletti Gallery in March 2012.
A version of this story appears on page 4 of the November 17 print edition of Ace.
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