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Down in the hollers: eastern Kentucky mountain life – in pictures

Brandon and Friends, Hardshell Caney Creek, 1999

The Guardian

by Mee-Lai Stone

July 18, 2023


Down in the hollers: eastern Kentucky mountain life – in pictures

Shelby Lee Adams spent four decades gaining the trust of the people in these images, sometimes photographing up to five generations of the same family


The Blind Preacher, Hardshell Caney Creek, 1997

Every summer for more than 40 years, Shelby Lee Adams travelled to the mountains of eastern Kentucky to take photos of the people there, all of whom get to see and approve the publication of their portraits. Nearly 90 of these previously unpublished photographs are included in a new book, portraying the culture and people of his native land. From the Heads of the Hollers is available to buy via GOST books. All photos courtesy of Shelby Lee Adams/GOST books


Brandon and Friends, Hardshell Caney Creek, 1999

Now in his 70s, Adams has returned to his archive of unpublished images taken between 1974 and 2010. His aim was to print those which might have been previously overlooked, concerned that if he did not print them in his lifetime, they would be lost


Lonnie and Leddie [sisters], Garner, 1986

Adams’ intention when he first began to take pictures had been to ‘photograph what I knew’


Slone Mountain Porch, Garner, 1991

His annual summer trips allowed him to renew and relive his childhood in these mountains. He began by taking photographs of his grandparents, uncles and aunts, neighbours and friends


The Jacob Boys, Garner, 1985

He then asked for introductions when he brought back photographs to distribute to those whose portraits he had taken


Corrine, Bulan, 1979

Introductions led to further introductions and over the course of four decades he continued to work in this manner, photographing three, four or sometimes even five generations of the same families


John and Berthie, Beehive, 1988

Shelby Lee Adams: ‘I ask folks to look into the camera lens and find their own reflection while thinking about significant events in their lives that are important to them. Life experiences for all of us vary greatly and are imprinted in our core being and that bears through, influencing our appearances’


Little Leatherwood Coal Miner #3, 1992

‘When a photographer is connected to his subjects, pretences and masks fall away, bringing forward a more unrestrained and engaging portrait’


Christian, Weeksbury, 1999

‘In the eastern Kentucky mountains, I try and create a strong connection with those I’m drawn to. I find the most generous, direct and transparent people live in the hollers – a narrow valley, usually with a single lane road, found in isolated mountainous areas’


Merle, Hindman, 1985

‘Years ago, some of my subjects told me they did not want to have their pictures placed in a book alongside their community’s “well-to-do”, the very ones who “put us down and make fun of us”. I listened to them. They are sensitive to this issue. I heard their stories and have gained their trust’


April and Prudy, Coon Creek, 2003

‘After seeing my first book (Appalachian Portraits) it was clear that the holler folks understood my vision, and since then they have always helped me to find more of the grounded and authentic culture that defines them, even as it disappears. So, by word of mouth, I’ve created a collective portrait of our holler people that many have never seen before’