Shelby Lee Adams
Shelby Lee Adams American, 1950- Like his mentor, Clarence John Laughlin, documentary photographer Shelby Lee Adams believes in the symbolic possibilities of the medium for exploring both the grotesque and the heroic sides of the human condition. Working in black and white, first with 35mm and later a 4 x 5-inch camera, he is best known for his extensive, penetrating portrait series of Appalachian families isolated from mainstream contemporary society. Born in Hazard, Kentucky, the nephew of a respected doctor in the region, Adams has used his background to gain entrance into this community. He typically spends time with a family in order to get to know its members before beginning to photograph, and sometimes follows his subjects over a long period of time. Adams has also photographed the religious rituals of the Holiness Church, whose practices include snake handling, drinking poison, and speaking in tongues. The unsettling candor of his images, he says, reflects "a long autobiographical exploration of creativity, imagination, vision, repulsion, and salvation." Similar sentiments inform his interest in photographing members of the Colombian leper colony known as Auga de Dios, in South America. Adams studied at the Cleveland Institute of Art (B.F.A., 1974), the University of Iowa (M.A., 1975), and the Massachusetts College of Art (M.F.A., 1989). His awards include a survey grant and photography fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts (1978, 1992), an excellence award from the Society for Contemporary Photography (1987), a gold medal from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, Kansas City Art Institute (1987), and support grants from the Elisabeth Foundation, Akron (1990), and the Polaroid Corporation (1989-92). He has taught photography at the Cincinnati Art Academy (1978-79), Illinois Central College (1981-84), and Salem State College (1985-present). His images are included in the anthology Appalachia: A Self-Portrait (1979) and his monograph, Appalachian Portraits (1993). Adams lives in Slemp, Kentucky, and in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where he maintains his studio. A.W.