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Appalachian Lives

Appalachian Lives

2.6 3
by Shelby Lee Adams (Photographer), Vicki Goldberg (Introduction)

This collection of eighty photographs focuses on present-day Appalachia, a region that "progress" has placed under siege.

This once poverty-stricken, mountain backwater has been invaded by four-lane interstates, cable television, Wal-Mart, and mobile homes. The people have largely abandoned log cabins and country stores and now shun overalls in favor of tee


This collection of eighty photographs focuses on present-day Appalachia, a region that "progress" has placed under siege.

This once poverty-stricken, mountain backwater has been invaded by four-lane interstates, cable television, Wal-Mart, and mobile homes. The people have largely abandoned log cabins and country stores and now shun overalls in favor of tee shirts that blaze advertising logos.

Over a period of twenty-five years Adams has traveled back to his home state of Kentucky with his cameras to document the lives of people there and to enrich and challenge outside perceptions of Appalachia.

His previous books--Appalachian Portraits (1993) and Appalachian Legacy (1998), both published by University Press of Mississippi--established the grace, intelligence, and wit with which Adams depicts life, as well as the candor and straightforward honesty he evokes from his trusting subjects.

Adams photographed many of these faces several times during his career. Appalachian Lives depicts how time and the outside world have affected the people dear to him. The boys of Appalachian Portraits now have become the young men of Appalachian Lives. Old homesteads have changed hands. The elderly in earlier photographs have died, yet their features glow in the faces of descendants.

In her introduction Vicki Goldberg says, "Adams looks at a difficult subject with an artist's eye. At their best, the complicated and ambiguous pictures in this book are an uncommon blend of humanity, reportage, and art, an Appalachia most of us thought we knew seen through eyes that tell us that maybe we didn't know it so well after all."

Just as his photographs portray the richness and complexity of Appalachians, Adams's accompanying text explains how he attains the level of trust that allows him to continue photographing these people. He tells why the region continues to fascinate him. His reflections give context to the images and a sense of the lives lived outside of the photographic frame. His honesty about his interaction with his subjects, their sometimes wary reactions to him, and his personal history in the region infuse the photographs with an intimacy that only an Appalachian insider such as Adams could achieve.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
As in Appalachian Portraits (1993) and Appalachian Legacy (1998)), here photographer Adams works more as a collaborator than a documentarian in rendering the "intense family environments"-isolated microcosms of farm, factory and self-employed kin-of eastern Kentucky. He employs careful, unsettling poses not unlike those of Sally Mann, but his subjects register an uncanny combination of bemusement and desire to articulate something deadly serious rather than Mann's difficult sexuality. In text that winds through 80 lushly printed b&w portraits, Adams draws on his own upbringing in the area, and details his long-term relationships with his subjects; often a visit to "Hylo's Place" results in warm exchanges but no pictures. Rather than interfering with photos, the texts add layers of meaning. A shirtless blond boy clutching a rooster was the only one among many on a hot day who could control the bird without getting scratched; his worried stare contains the anxieties of the shoot along with less defined emotions. In "Driving Straight to Hell," a photo featured in the New Yorker, Adams shoots Dan Slone in the cab of his 1979 Ford F-150 at night after days of drinking, illuminated by a lurid strobe. Beginning with portraits of children and ending with several open-casket funerals, the results throughout are disturbing enough that Vicki Goldberg (The Power of Photography: How Photographs Changed Our Lives) is forced to note in her introduction that "evidence of Adams's care and respect shines through." They do, and Adams's subjects, particularly in the group shots, transform his visits into nuanced symphonies of life and light. (July) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
There is deep poverty in Adams's photographs of a rugged, inner Appalachia shaped by generations of intractable struggle. Adams's first two books, Appalachian Portraits and Appalachian Legacy, revealed both his access and his sensitivity to people who were his neighbors. This third volume reveals a progression in the battered infrastructure of shacks and debris: trailers are plunked down where homemade wooden cabins stood before, and a wardrobe of old dresses and work shirts has evolved into T-shirts with sports and pop culture designs. The satellite dish is ever-present, even a rallying point for proud owners. In Appalachian Legacy, Adams captured a frail dignity and enduring natural rhythm. A few years later, some of his subjects seem to have acquired a new edge, or even swagger, perhaps bred through movies, broadcast sports, and a crumbling of isolation. The introduction by photography writer Vicki Goldberg makes a good contribution to an excellent book. Adams continues to give us the blunt, perfectly composed reality of a distinct American place and people. Highly recommended.-David Bryant, New Canaan P.L., CT Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.

Product Details

University Press of Mississippi
Publication date:
Edition description:
New Edition
Product dimensions:
11.30(w) x 10.76(h) x 0.67(d)

Meet the Author

Shelby Lee Adams's photographs have been shown in single-artist exhibits in New York, New Orleans, and Dallas, among other cities. Find out more about Shelby Lee Adams at shelby-lee-adams.blogspot.com

Vicki Goldberg is the author of The Power of Photography: How Photographs Changed Our Lives and editor of Photography in Print: Writings from 1816 to the Present. She writes on photography for the New York Times, Vanity Fair, American Photo, and other publications.

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Appalachian Lives 2.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Shelby Lee Adams grew up in the Appalachain hollows that he photographs. I find it interesting that those that rant against Adams work have not taken the time to learn of his love and respect for the people and culture that he photographs. Yes, it may be hard to look at some of his photos--one might consider the 'eye of the beholder'. I have learned, through studying Shelby Lee Adams work, as well as teaching about his work in my college courses, that in order to critique--one must make the effort to know where the photographer comes from. I have found this book loving, respectful, and full of appreciation for life as it is. I have recommended it for students taking my courses, as well as other works of Shelby Lee Adams. To consider Shelby Lee Adams photographic work is to learn of his personal life. Beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder, when the heart has learned to love life as it is. I highly recommend this book!!!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
When was the last time you read a book about spaghetti-eating Italian Mobsters, or grinning and shuffling minorities, and thought that the writing was a fair depiction of a racial or ethnic group? While this book ignores the beauty of our region, the intelligence of our people,it focuses on all the hurtful stereotypes that continue to chain us. Look at the lack of diversity in the photographs. Although the jacket claims 'to enrich and challenge outside perceptions of Appalachia' in reality it only promotes the caricature. While there may be toothless, dirty, hopeless, shiftless individuals in Appalachia, those individuals also exsist on any big city street. The vacant stares found on many pages can be found just as easily in the 'warehouses for the elderly' that dot our nation. This was the first book by this author that I have ever read, I was expecting something powerful, it was powerful - powerfully misguided.