JEN HEARN PHOTOGRAPHY | From Cleveland to Kentucky to New York: Discovering Shelby Lee Adams

From Cleveland to Kentucky to New York: Discovering Shelby Lee Adams

June 30, 2015  •  1 Comment



It was a winter weekend a few years back.  Dan & I were watching a series of documentaries on photographers, playing on a new cable station.  We wanted to see the documentary about Sally Mann, whose work we love.

After the Mann film, there was a show about William Eggleston.  After that we were about to turn off the tv, but I was suddenly mesmerized by the images of the next documentary.  "Appalachia" suddenly appeared on the screen.  The lush green mountains of Kentucky rolled by and I grabbed my husband's arm and said, "that's where my family came from!"

I never really thought about describing my family as "Appalachian".  My father and mother's families moved to Cleveland when they were both young.  My mom's family were looking to escape the coal mines of Southeaster Ohio.  My father's family wanted to leave behind the poverty and hard life they'd had in western Kentucky.  

I was suddenly remembering bits and pieces of my family's history that had been long buried.  My mom's family still living in Bridgeport Ohio.  My memories of summers spent with Aunt Helen & Uncle Chuck.  Uncle Chuck had a tattoo of a Hawian lady that he made dance, and he made his own root beer.  Summers in Bridgeport were so much more relaxed than in the suburbs of Cleveland.  We picked tomatoes and ate them fresh off the vine and caught lightning bugs in jars.  My cousins and I laughed over how we said words like "mom" and "pop" so differently and I came back to Cleveland trying to remember not to say "y'all", or I'd get teased for being a "hillbilly".

Another memory came flooding back: the year (1975) my dad moved us to Kentucky, because he thought it would solve all our problems.  I was 5 and not happy about the move.  My mom stayed behind with my newborn little sister.  I recall driving down to Kentucky alone with my dad.  Along the way he told me about his childhood in Kentucky.  There was some mystical connection to Elvis Presley.  And he spoke of some kin in Eastern KY, like his great uncle Hansel, the pig farmer/moonshiner who lost both his legs to "the sugar" (diabetes.)

As we drove through the mountains, he showed me where the coal companies came in, stole the land and "strip mined" everything.  The beautiful mountain tops gone.  Ugly flat dirt land with machines.  It was painful to see, even as a child with little understanding of the politics and histories of coal mines.

The talk sometimes turned dark.  My dad's father died from a tick bite when my dad was only 3 or 4.  His mother remarried an abusive man.  There were 2 "1/2 brothers" and a move to Cleveland.  My dad somehow blamed Cleveland for his troubles and thought Kentucky would be a magical cure for all his (and our family's) problems.

Seeing the first 10 minutes of the Shelby Lee Adams documentary had all of that pouring out of me.  Things I'd forgotten, or was never able to explain to my husband.  Now I could show him, through Adams photographs, some of where my family came from.  The photo of an old woman with a pipe looked a bit  like my great grandmother!  The snake handlers reminding me of my mom's cousin Roxie, who lost her husband in a car accident and took to preaching the gospel and laying hands on people after that.

I was blown away by Shelby Lee Adams work.  The documentary featured segments of Adam's being interviewed, but what drew me in was Adam's own video footage, used by the film maker to supplement the film.  What I noticed first was the way his KY accent was stronger when he was shown working and interacting with his subjects.  The accent faded when he was being interviewed in his New England home.  I recalled my father's accent changing depending on where he'd recently spent time.  

When the documentary got to Shelby's work with the Childer's family, my heart skipped a beat.  Here was this photographer, whose work was already speaking to me in so many ways, taking photos of a family with developmentally disabled children/adults.  I grew up around developmentally disabled (DD) people.  A cousin in KY with Downs Syndrome was a great childhood friend.  My grandmother's best friend across the street kept her DD son Gary home, something unheard of in the 60's.

I attended OSU for a year and had to suddenly drop out due to family circumstances.  My first job was working at a group home with DD adults.  It seemed funny to me that I could have a career working with people I already understood.  I spent 5 years working with these DD adults.  I was a "live in" staff member for some of that time.  I saw these people go to work, fall in love, make mistakes, all things "normal" adults did every day.  

Shelby Lee Adams work with the Childer's family blew me away.  The first thing I noticed is the love between him and the family.  The family participated in making those photos and greatly enjoyed it.  The daughter Selina had a spark in her eyes, like she was in on some great joke.

The important I noticed is that Shelby says, "we made pictures".  He doesn't say, "I took a picture".  He says, "We made a picture."  And that is so important in understanding his work.  The photos with these families are all about collaboration.  Photos made together.

At different points in the film art critics, Appalachian historians, fellow Kentuckians and photographers give their take on his work.  The art world seems to mostly embrace the work, while finding it sometimes difficult to look at.  The poverty, the slaughtering of a pig, are thought to be great works of art to hang in a museum but maybe not their own homes.  Some people in Kentucky worry about the stereotypes, that people will see the work and conclude people in appalacia are all living in abject poverty.

The most important response to Adam's work comes from his subjects.  They all enjoy making photographs with Shelby.  They look forward to him returning each summer to make more pictures with them.  Some families have worked with him for over 30 years.  He shows every subject the photos before anything is printed, to get their approval.  After the work is published he comes back to give them a copy for themselves.  A ritual the familees and the photographer seem to relish.

After watching the documentary, I made sure to tell my mom to check it out.  She's my only living family who would remember our time in Southern Ohio and Kentucky.  She responded to the work like I did, finding it amazing to see these photos of our heritage that we never knew existed.  Knowing the photos hang in galleries all over the world was astounding.  Because in our lives, the only representation of appalicia we saw in the media was "Deliverance" and "Hee Haw".  


After the documentary, we got the coffee table books of Shelby's work.  The books were added to my collection of photography books.  Including Diane Arbus, Sally Mann and Joel-Peter Witkin.  I was a photography major in college before I dropped out.  And in the year I caught the Adams film, I was also learning how to use a DSLR camera.  I was ready to come back to photography.

I started with portraits in natural light.  I loved working with subjects, "making" a picture together that we both liked.  

But I wanted to do more.  I had an idea for a project about about people living in East Cleveland, and I kept seeing Shelby Lee Adams' work in my head.  The way he lights subjects in their homes or front porches, using natural light along with studio lighting, I wondered how he did that.

One day I did a Google search on "How does Shelby Lee Adams light his subjects?"  Suddenly I found that he had a blog, with contact information and information about classes.  Within a few days I was registered at the International Center of Photography in NYC.  A 5 day class in "Environmental Portraiture".  The description of the class was exactly what I wanted to learn:  

This course explores the psychological, emotional, and technical aspects of portraiture, with special emphasis on photographing people in their environment. Students learn how to develop rapport with their subjects, establishing a collaboration that produces spontaneous, intimate, and inventive portraits. Photographing in Bryant Park and Central Park, students experiment with location studio lighting, natural light, and a combination of both. Evaluating lighting set-ups is an integral part of this course, with both traditional and histogram metering. Students develop film, print assignments, or print from digital files for critique.

We didn't have the money for me to spend 6 days in Manhattan, to afford airfare or a nice hotel, but my husband agreed that this was a once in a lifetime experience, to learn something so specific from someone who had become my favorite living photographer.  So the flight was booked and I prepared for the trip and class as best I could.





I arrived in NYC Sunday evening.  The hotel was 5 minutes from the school.  I unpacked and scoped out Midtown Manhattan.  I had my camera and took some street photos.  I located places to buy groceries, found a perfect diner and a breakfast spot with "egg on a bun" for $3.

Walking over to ICP for the first class, I couldn't believe it was happening.  That I was in NYC (a city I love) taking this class with Shelby Lee Adams.  It seemed too good to be true.

The first day of class everyone was asked to bring some of their work to show the class.  We had 10 people in the class (it was 11 but one student walked out after 10 minutes.  I guess she changed her mind...)  We all talked about started to get to know each other, and then Shelby started to explain his lighting technique.  He used examples of his own and, as well as Annie Leibovitz.  It was starting to make sense...

Day 2 we shoot photos in Bryant Park.  We had studio lights and teaching assistants to help.  There were models hired, because approaching strangers with a class of 10 with all that equipment would be difficult.  We split off into groups and spent the day at the park.  Each teaching assistant had a different approach.  When asked to pick a spot, I of course wanted to shoot by the carosel.  My male classmates were not impressed with such a girly spot, but we laughed about it and made do.

At one point I was lucky enough to get a quick lesson in using the rear synch flash from Shelby.  We got a shot of a red-headed little girl on the caroseul looking right at the camera as she wizzed by

Photo Shelby Lee Adams shoot of me, after I got the shot above.  95 degrees in Bryant Park.


The entire 5 day class was amazing.  It's been almost a year and I'm still using things I learned in NYC.  Not just the technical stuff, the lighting and exposure.  Every encounter, every portrait, I try and see my subject, and see myself in them.  I want to tell their story.  Whether it's a wedding or a head shot, there's someone there with a story.  You want to observe, create, and form a bond with your subject.  You aren't "taking" their picture, you are "making" a picture, together.



Shelby Lee Adams Blog: CLICK HERE 








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