Shelby Lee Adams

Shelby Lee Adams

Fellow: Awarded 2010
Field of Study: Photography

Competition: US & Canada

Shelby Lee Adams was born in Hazard, Kentucky, in 1950, and educated at The Cleveland Institute of Art and Massachusetts College of Art. He is the author of three photography books, all published by The University Press of Mississippi, Appalachian Portraits 1993, Appalachian Legacy, 1998 and Appalachian Lives, 2003. In addition to his Guggenheim Fellowship he has held a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and a NEA survey grant, he has received artist support grants four years consecutively from the Polaroid Corporation and one from The Elizabeth Firestone Graham Foundation and the Peter S. Reed Foundation. His photography has been collected and exhibited by over 60 national and international public museum collections and numerous private collections. His work resides in the Musee De L’Elysee Lausanne, Lausanne, Switzerland, The National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Whitney Museum of American Art, NYC, The Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, TX, many photographs reside within his people’s homes in Eastern Kentucky, among others. His work has been published in and represented by many academic, fine art and commercial publications, including, Aperture, Smithsonian Magazine, Phaidon, The New York Times and Mother Jones.  He divides his time between his home in the Berkshire Mountains of Western Massachusetts and Eastern Kentucky.

Artist Statement

Every summer, traveling through the mountains photographing, I am somehow able to renew and relive my childhood. I regain my southern, mountain accent and approach my people with openness, fascination, and respect; and they treat me with respect. My psychic antennae become sharpened and acute. I love these people, perhaps that is it, plain and simple. I respond to the sensual beauty of a hardened face with many scars, the deeply etched lines and flickers of sweat containing bright spots of sunlight. The eyes of my subjects reveal a kindness and curiosity, and their acceptance of me is gratifying. For me, this is rejuvenation of the spirit of time past, and I am better for the experience each time it happens. These portraits are, in a way, self-portraits that represent a long autobiographical exploration of creativity, imagination, vision, repulsion and salvation. My greatest fear as a photographer is to look into the eyes of my subject and not see my own reflection.

My work has been an artist search for a deeper understanding of my heritage and myself, using photography as a medium and the Appalachian people as collaborators with their own desires to communicate. I hope, too, that viewers, will see in these photographs something of the abiding strength and resourcefulness and dignity of the mountain people.


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