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Appalachian Lives

Appalachian Lives

By Shelby Lee Adams
Introduction by Vicki Goldberg
Hardcover : 9781578065400, 98 pages, 80 b&w photographs, May 2003

Photographs that trace time across the faces and lives of Appalachian families


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 T-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.


"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 eighty lushly printed black-and-white 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."

- Publishers Weekly