Shelby Lee Adams is renowned for his environmental portraiture, primarily from the Appalachian mountains of eastern Kentucky.
Adams was born in Kentucky in the town of Hazard. And later lived with his grandparents in Hot Spot. It was during this time that he discovered photography and the arts in high school. Also, it is when the Peace Corps sent a film crew to his town to document the poverty of Appalachia. This sparked Adams’ interest in the documentary style. After that, he attended the Cleveland Institute of Art.
There in his sophomore year he discovered the photographs of the Farm Security Administration. These pictures document the debilitating effects of the Depression in the South during the 1930s. Adams was able to relate to the images and the subjects. And this inspired him to make his photographs of the people and culture of Appalachia. These pictures are what the photographer is best known. Adams began this project in 1973. And although he has done editorial work for publications like Fortune, GQ, New York Magazine, and the New York Times, he primarily focuses on portraits of the people of Appalachia.
Furthermore, Shelby Lee Adams’ work has received a great deal of recognition. For instance, he received a survey grant and photography fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts (1978, 1992). Along with an artist support grant four years running from the Polaroid Corporation (1989-92). Furthermore, his photographs are held in the permanent collections of many museums. For example, the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art, both in New York. Also, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., the Harvard Fogg Museum in Cambridge, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.