Capturing Appalachia’s “Mountain People”

Shelby Lee Adams’ 1990 photograph of life in the eastern Kentucky mountains captured a poignant tradition

Esther Renee Adams, "Mamaw," was laid to rest in her own home. In the mountains of eastern Kentucky, such "country wakes" could last for days. (Shelby Lee Adams)
Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 1)

Then one summer an uncle, a country doctor, introduced him to some of the most isolated mountain families. When Adams went back later, he says, he was mesmerized by their openness before his lens; photographing them would become his life’s work. Today he knows how accents vary from hollow to hollow, who has a sulfurous well, who’s expecting a baby.

The darkness he has sometimes seen in Appalachia only makes him want to look closer. “Within the shadows lie the depth and beauty of human beings,” he says. “Until we understand our own darkness, we won’t understand our beauty.”

His subjects appreciate his presents of canned hams and clothing at Christmastime and the occasional case of beer; they are also eager to see his photographs. “Country people love pictures,” Adams says. Almost every house or trailer has some on display: church and prom portraits, sonograms and sometimes Adams’ work.

But not everyone likes his images.

“I guess I don’t see the point of freezing yourself in time,” says Christopher Holbrook, the baby in his mother’s arms in Home Funeral and now a dimpled 20-year-old in dusty jeans. “The past is supposed to be past.” Chris is the first person in his family to graduate from high school; he has also taken courses in diesel mechanics at Hazard Community College. He recently married and now works as a security guard. No picture, he says, can tell him what his future holds.

Walter Holbrook, Chris’ father and Mamaw’s son, takes a different view. Home Funeral is “something I can show my kids and maybe later on they can save to show their kids what kind of family they had,” he says.

“Somebody said Shelby takes these pictures to make fun of people,” Nay Bug says. “You know what I think? It’s not to make them look bad. It’s the way you look at it. He doesn’t mean to make fun of the poor people. He’s showing how hard it is for us to live.”

She had never seen Home Funeral until Adams visited last summer. She stared at the photograph for a long time. “Now, Jamie, I want you to look at something,” she told her former husband. “Just look right here.” A real teardrop slipped past the tattooed one near her eye. “That’s me.”

Staff writer Abigail Tucker also writes on mustangs in this issue.


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus