Photo exhibit busts Appalachian stereotypes
05/09/2012 10:00 PM
Kentuckians get a bad rap.
People who call the Bluegrass State home are the object of extreme stereotypes. They’re hicks and hillbillies. Inbred mountain folks drunk on moonshine. Dirt-poor, dumb rednecks shacked up in double-wide trailers buried deep in Appalachian hollers.
Hundreds of years of music, literature and media have built this perception. It’s one that stings for those who know the truth about the fine people of Kentucky (including this writer, whose family hails from rural Morgan and Menifee counties in the eastern part of the state).
Shelby Lee Adams knows the truth, as well, and he’s spent his life spreading it via art.
The renowned photographer was born in Hazard, Ky. in 1950. He lived an itinerant life with his father before settling with his grandparents in Hot Spot, a small town in the southeastern section of the state. When the Peace Corps and other government agencies descended upon the area in the 1960s to document poverty in the region, the young Adams experienced first-hand the stereotypes attached to his home after a film crew described his family as poor and malnourished.
The untrue generalization had a profound, altering effect on Adams, leading him to spend 30 years documenting on film real life in Appalachia. His fourth collection of such photos, Salt & Truth, has recently been published and selections are currently on exhibition at Catherine Edelman Gallery.
Salt & Truth looks at members of three families — the Slone, Napier and Noble clans — as well as various other “holler dwellers” who live in the Appalachian foothills. It’s a masterful display that squelches preconceived notions about life in rural Kentucky, while also bringing serious attention to the poverty that afflicts the region.
Spanning decades, Adams’ black-and-white photos offer a wide-angle view of life.
A wide-eyed child in one frame grows to a tattooed adult in the next. A mother gathered with children in a photo lies dead in a casket surrounded by family in another shot. Hoarding tendencies shared between mother and son are revealed in separate snapshots of their respective dusty, ephemera-filled homes. Facial features shared amongst parents and children and amongst brothers and sisters take shape through multiple scenes.
Families in Adams’ photos hold each other tight. They’re large, extended groups with an intense respect for history who are with each other at all life stages from cradle to grave. Photos documenting funerals held in homes cement this notion of familial solidarity to the end. And it’s no surprise that family portraits line the rooms of most homes in Adams’ photos.
The conditions that the families endure strengthen such bonds. Stereotypes notwithstanding, these people are very poor. They live in run-down homes and trailers with steel shingle roofs and interior walls made of cardboard and newspaper. The photos span decades, but they look as if they were all shot in a single day. This aesthetic cohesion reveals the seemingly unending depths of poverty in the region. Nothing changes.
Despite these rough conditions, Adams’ subjects aren’t downtrodden. They’re proud and strong. They laugh. Their smiles beam. They accept life as it is. Such a notion may seem naïve, but it’s the exact opposite. Faced with extremity, truths are revealed. Family and love exist above all and make any condition endurable.