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PRINT November 2002

PORTFOLIO: SHELBY LEE ADAMS

“WHY COULDN’T HE JUST HAVE TAKEN A PRETTY PICTURE?” The image is of a young girl, radiant, bathed in the most exquisite light as she stands behind a torn screen door deep in a Kentucky holler. Yet to her well-dressed older sister who now lives in town, the picture, taken years before by Shelby Lee Adams, represents the stereotype she sought to overcome: the lazy, unwashed hillbilly. For her that front porch is still too close for comfort. And yet it’s the real sense of intimacy in Adams’s photographs, even at their spookiest, that offers an image of the “mountain people” of Appalachia that we may not have seen before.

Born in Hazard, Kentucky, Adams has been returning there to make pictures for over thirty years now, building on a body of work that has received increasing acclaim but also the kind of ambivalent criticism once reserved for Diane Arbus. With the recent premiere of a feature-length

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