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Shelby Lee Adams — Salt & Truth

A conversation with Catherine Edelman

Editor's Note: Flak Photo is proud to feature this conversation in support of Shelby Lee Adams' Salt & Truth, a new collection of the photographer's Appalachian portraits published by Candela Books in 2011 and exhibited at Catherine Edelman Gallery in 2012. For more information and to order a copy of the book, visit


Catherine Edelman: I first showed your work 20 years ago. Since then, your photographs have received critical acclaim, resulting in four books and work in major museums and private collections worldwide. Can you tell me how you think you have changed as a person and as a photographer as a result of this amazing success?

Shelby Lee Adams: I have always worked in a singular focused and self-directed manner, telling myself repeatedly I’m only as good as my next photograph. To stop and look at the overview of 36 years work now is a little disconcerting. I have changed drastically over the years, discovering that the only person in our lives we can really change deeply is ourselves and through that tough realization seeing and feeling more interconnected to my friends, subjects and viewing audience as well, trying repeatedly to link, bond and understand that place called home.

Catherine Edelman: Home is a very important concept within your work. Can you explain what it means to you?

Shelby Lee Adams: When I was growing up as an only child, I was raised by my parents moving around the country with my dad’s work, up and down the eastern seaboard He worked in natural gas conversion and was constantly on the move. When attending elementary school I went to eight different schools, but always finishing the school year at the local rural school in Kentucky. The only constant in my life then was the visits and times spent with my grandparents on their farms. That established within me a pattern of behavior to keep returning to Eastern Kentucky, the only home place I knew. The people there, they never traveled and were always home, friendly and accepting of me. That endeared me to them even more. Their homes were always welcoming.

Catherine Edelman: Can you explain a typical visit / photo shoot with one of the families?

Shelby Lee Adams: The rural area I am from has had a great deal of exposure to the news media, journalists, photographers and filmmakers. My standard rule for myself has always been to make Polaroids at each home when visiting, sharing and leaving some images with the family. When I return the next visit, even if it is a year later, I distribute photographs made for the family from the previous visit. If there is a photo I wish to use in my work I then ask for a model release to be signed for that picture, sharing and giving the family a copy of my last book, so they understand the context of the picture's use and then distributing other photos to the family. My reputation now far exceeds me and everyone knows me as the “Picture Man.” In exchange, I ask the family for new introductions to others they might know, relatives or neighbors that might want photographs made.

With established old friends whom I revisit often over the years, the visits are a lot of hugging and talking and catching up on family affairs, what’s going on in the community, sharing pictures, looking at new babies or reading the obituaries of the recently deceased. The visit may include petting the old hunting dog and touring the place to see the new animals, see how the garden is growing, feel how fat the rabbits are, shoot a new .22 rifle, look at the daughter's new prom dress, or admire the father's new deer head mounted in the living room. Eventually, we get around to staying for lunch or supper and making new photographs. All in all, it's a long day. At most, I can do three visits a day, and I usually make photographs at a couple of the homes.

Catherine Edelman: I've had people comment that no one is smiling in your photos. Can you comment on this and explain the types of conversations you have with folks when creating an image?

Shelby Lee Adams: When having someone sit or stand in front of a 4x5 camera, it requires a more conscious commitment. Your subject has to stay relatively still and not move. I often engage people in conversation before we make photographs, making sure that they are comfortable and relaxed within themselves, and we talk about no specific topic. I ask people to tell me their stories and they do. What the viewer does not see is the test Polaroids first made to check exposure, focus and technical issues. I'll make approximately three Polaroids and develop them, sharing them with my subjects. This usually takes several minutes. If one is particularly good, I ask my subject if they would like for me to make a Polaroid just for them to keep. Usually, people want more than one. We study the backgrounds, compositions, eyes, lighting, etc. and discuss the direction to look, almost always right into the center of the lens. After making a couple of images, people settle and become more serious, even children. I tell people to be natural, look for their own reflection within the lens and hold steady, I rarely say, don’t do this or that, only when someone is acting stiff or too rigid, I might say, take a deep breath and relax.

By the time I’m ready to expose film my subjects have overcome their own artificial, smiley personas and want themselves a more serious photograph. Then I will expose three 4x5 film plates. I work in this manner with whomever I’m photographing, in different cultures and environments, even a commercial photo assignment would be no different. I’m interested in the timelessness of portraiture, making photographs that will endure. I guess I consider myself to be a serious person and I’m certain that reflects in many of my photos. But I’ve also done smiling and laughing photographs. For example, in our recent exhibition, Dan Slone is laughing heartily in the photo, Driving Straight to Hell.

Shelby Lee Adams, Driving Straight to Hell, 1998

Driving Straight to Hell, 1998.

Catherine Edelman: Your commitment to photographing the people and region of Eastern Kentucky with a 4x5 view camera has now exceeded thirty years, which I find unique among photographers working today. With more and more artists turning to digital cameras, which offer speed and instant results, you've stuck with analog. Can you foresee yourself turning to digital in the near future and if so, do you think the work will inherently change?

Shelby Lee Adams: Change is usually a good thing. But working more formally, relatively centered in front of people, slowly and methodically, has always benefited my portraits. That is why I changed from 35 mm to 4x5 in 1974. The world I photograph in appreciates the more studied approach. My subjects see where the large camera is at all times, mounted on a tripod that doesn’t move easily, and that adds to their comfort level. This is important to them. We have all experienced the quick and rushed photojournalist approach.

After my first 10 years of photographing with the view camera with many frustrations I acquired a right angle finder for the back of the view camera and started working with artificial lighting. This viewing device eliminated my having to look through and focus under a black focusing cloth, hidden from my subject temporarily, and the tool works great in total daylight. You can engage and see your subject the entire time. Facial contact — which I feel is important to maintain with portrait work — does not have to be broken off. You view what your camera and film will record with one eye while focusing and simultaneously engaging your subject with the other eye, never having your face covered or masked by the camera’s dark focusing cloth the entire time. I have trained myself to work this way since 1985.

My first camera was a German Exacta with various lenses that my father bought for me in Europe. Most of my undergraduate art school photography was made with this camera. I have always used a 35 mm camera to make snapshots, to record events like a tourist, especially when traveling Internationally. In Kentucky I have found certain situations that needed to be photographed in color such as someone’s homemade quilts or a doll collection. I’ve photographed for my friends and subjects in color and I would have inexpensive color drug store prints made to distribute. In 2005 I bought my first digital 35 mm camera to replace my traditional 35 mm film camera, which I use like a sketchbook. I have grown to appreciate the ease of the digital camera's performance and quality. My serious work with digital has evolved into my now using the full frame 35 mm digital camera, but maintaining a similar approach as I've done with the traditional 4x5 format. I prefer to pre-visualize my images and compositions and spend time establishing relationships with my subjects. Some other photographers like to shoot a lot and edit later to find their best photographs.

With digital cameras — unless you're using a tripod — you have to hold the camera directly in front of your face, which blocks visual and facial recognition and contact as with the older view camera and focusing cloth. To remedy this problem I place the digital camera on a tripod, and use a cable release and right angle finder so I can see and engage my subjects while making exposures. So in essence, I now make Polaroids with the new Fuji Instant 4x5 film in my 4x5 camera and expose film and Polaroids. I have both cameras mounted on a quick set release and can slide back and forth from camera to camera on the same tripod using both formats. I feel it's important to give my subjects a print in the moment of the making, in the field, and the 4x5 camera warrants keeping around just for that. To show someone a digital display just isn't enough for me.

I've been working in this manner for the last 5 to 7 years. The lighting I’ve always used is necessary for the view camera and this gives a better degree of sharpness to the digital files. I’m also able to capture more movement and diversity of expressions than before. But to photograph children jumping, shooting basketball hoops — which is common in Appalachia — doesn't interest me. Stillness is more revealing. What is more interesting to me now is when I’m editing back in the studio; sometimes I select the digital color file over the 4x5 black and white negative and vice versa. Each gives a different feeling and expression and I’m open to selecting from both formats now. I have exposed color Kodachromes since the 1970s but I could never afford to make quality color prints back then. Digital printing is eaiser and less expensive, so I’ve been scanning and printing a large body of color work from that time up to my more recent digital photographs. Perhaps a color book will emerge but I just can't see myself giving up my black & white view camera work. I'll continue making pictures like this as long as film is available and I have a big storage freezer in my basement just in case.

Shelby Lee Adams Polaroids

Detail, the photographer's Polaroid proofs, 2012.

Catherine Edelman: Thanks so much for your candor. In honor of one of my favorite interviewers, James Lipton, some final questions. What is your favorite word?

Shelby Lee Adams: Majestic

Catherine Edelman: What is your least favorite word?

Shelby Lee Adams: Impossible

Catherine Edelman: What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?

Shelby Lee Adams: Openness, honesty, vulnerability, chaos, touching, kindness, hopefulness, giving, care, love and omnipotence.

Catherine Edelman: What turns you off creatively, spiritually or emotionally?

Shelby Lee Adams: Set rules & limitations, order, ignorance, arrogance and bigotry.

Catherine Edelman: What sound or noise do you love?

Shelby Lee Adams: The silence of nature, which can be symphonic.

Catherine Edelman: What sound or noise do you hate?

Shelby Lee Adams: Jackhammers

Catherine Edelman: What is your favorite curse word?

Shelby Lee Adams: “F--k This.”

Catherine Edelman: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

Shelby Lee Adams: Classical music

Catherine Edelman: What profession would you not like to do?

Shelby Lee Adams: Accountant

Catherine Edelman: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

Shelby Lee Adams: Thank You.

Shelby Lee Adams' photography has been publishd in three previous monographs — Appalachian Portraits (1993), Appalachian Legacy (1998) and Appalachian Lives (2003) — and has received numerous grants and awards. His photography is also represented in over sixty permanent collections including the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois; Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York; Victorial and Albert Museum, London, England; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, New York. Most recently, Adams was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2010. His newest body of work, Salt & Truth, will be exhibited at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in October 2012.

Catherine Edelman opened her Chicago gallery 24 years ago after completing her MFA in Photography at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Since its founding in 1987, the gallery quickly establishing itself as one of the leading venues in the Midwest devoted to the exhibition of prominent contemporary photographers alongside local, new & young talent, showcasing a broad range of subject matter. Catherine is an active member of the Association of International Photography Art Dealers (AIPAD) and currently serves as its vice-president. She is also a member of the Chicago Art Dealers Association (CADA) and currently serves as its president. Catherine Edelman Gallery exhibits in major art fairs throughout the country and is widely respected as a leader, educator and specialist in the field of contemporary photography.

Posted on Saturday, August 4, 2012.


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