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Shelby Lee Adams — Salt & Truth

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 CandelaBooks.com.


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 4×5 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 4×5 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 4×5 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 4×5 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 4×5 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 4×5 film in my 4×5 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 4×5 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 4×5 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.

Shooting (Color) Blind: Matthew Gamber’s Still Lifes

A bunch of green bananas, a solitary flourescent bulb and the pie-shaped pieces of a Trivial Pursuit Game. These are the subjects of photographer Matthew Gamber’s latest collection of still lifes, titled “Any Color You Like.” The objects Gamber photographed were chosenfor their distinct and recognizable colorsa decision that appears to be in conflict with the presentation of the series as stark black-and-white prints.

The decision to print in black and white was meant, Gamber said, to challenge how people understand what they see. By using these different processes, and to try to look at certain subjects, it’s just to call attention to things that we take for granted in terms of seeing.

The inspiration for the project came while Gamber was teaching at the Savannah College of Art and Design. He discovered that a student in his color photography class was colorblind. He didn’t look at color as colorhe looked at it as value, Gamber said. He looked at it as a lack of contrast or a lack of clarity.”

The realization that his student was manipulating color, while only being able to see in tones of gray, led Gamber to create photographs that mimicked this experience. He began by shooting objects from pop-culture that were easily recognizable: a pair of 3D glasses and a Lite-Brite toy, for instance. He wanted to play with ideas of perception by removing the most recognizable feature from his subjects, their color.

I wanted it to be something that felt just out of reach, he says. I think the success of this relies on what the viewers expectations are.

As the project progressed, Gamber moved on to more subtle imagery. seo marketing . A shot of ornately patterned wallpaper in a Boston brownstone references Bauhaus-era color theory that influenced the industrial production of wallpaper in the 1930s, Gamber explained. An image of a display of North American birds took on more meaning when Gamber learned that the birds feathers do not have their own color, but rather, are able to reflect certain light spectrums.

In addition to thinking about color, Gamber wanted his photographs to play with ideas of timelessness. I wanted to shoot in a way that it looks like it could have been shot yesterday, but it also looks like it was shot in the 1940s or the 1950s, said Gamber. There is something about how when you photograph something in black and white, it gets locked in that timeframe where it just becomes obsolete as an everyday seeing experience.

Gamber spent two years on Any Color You Like, which recently won The Curator award from Photo District News and will be featured in Brooklyns Photoville show this month. All of the photographs were shot on color film or as color digital captures. The negatives and color files were then converted to black and white negatives and printed as traditional silver gelatin black-and-white prints in a darkroom.

Working on this project has influenced the way Gamber thinks about color in both his photography and his life. He has started bringing color blindness tests into the classes he teaches at various colleges in Boston. He has also, Gamber said with a chuckle, become a more color-coordinated dresser.

I can see that much more now, said Gamber I’m more aware of how we are more emotionally charged by certain colors.

Matthew Gamber is a Boston-based photographer. His photos will be featured in Brooklyn’s Photoville festival from June 22-July 1.

Photoville: Established 2012; Population Growing

Photography doesn’t usually have the problem that it’s too noisy an art form, but that was exactly the challenge that faced the organizers of Photoville, a new photo festival that will open in Brooklyn, New York, on June 22. One of the major components of the show is an exhibit inside a warren of industrial shipping containers. Forty-two of them, to be exact, laid out in a maze carefully planned with both exploration and safety in mind.

Sam Barzilay

Viewers check out photography in a shipping container at a past United Photo Industries event.

“Getting a container is simple. Getting 42 of them placed in an intricate pattern is complicated. The most complicated thing is they’ll show up, they’ll dump it and they’ll drive away. I’ve learned that their preferred hour of doing that is 4:30 in the morning,” says Sam Barzilay, formerly of the New York Photo Festival, who is one of the three minds behind the festival. “Dumping a container as it grinds off the truck onto cobblestone is about the loudest thing I’ve ever heard.”

But when the festival opens, the containers will be there, full of photos. And that won’t be all: Photoville will also include about 1000 feet of fencing covered with community-centric photography, presentations from organizations like the Magnum Foundation and Photo District News, a number of workshops and even a beer garden and a dog run with a dog photo booth. And it’s all completely free.

Photoville is the product of United Photo Industries, a year-old cooperative comprising Sam Barzilay, Laura Roumanos and Dave Shelley. Barzilay says that the idea behind the event, and United Photo Industries’ other projects, is the realization that New York real estate affects the art scene. Empty storefronts have meant that small pop-up galleries have been relatively accessible during the last few years, but that won’t last forever. “The writing on the wall was sooner or later the economy would pick up again and people will be back in business, opening the stores,” says Barzilay. “Those spaces weren’t going to last.” They wanted to figure out a way to continue to present artwork without the overhead needed for a giant space. And once the shipping-container idea struck, the ideas just kept coming.

The end result is meant to appeal to photographers and civilians alike. “Even though it’s the most easily relatable art medium at this point, because everybody carries a camera, I think a lot of the time people are afraid of photography exhibitions,” says Barzilay. “We’re trying to cater to a full spectrum of people. I want people to come and enjoy it.” That’s why the free and open model is so important to the organization.

Barzilay and Shelley have both worked for the New York Photo Festival in the past, but Photoville is not meant to be competition for the more established festival. New York is big enough and “art-loving enough” to support many festivals, says Barzilay—and, besides, Photoville isn’t even meant to be a festival in a traditional sense of the word. “We’re trying to build a destination, trying to build a place where you go and spend a day listening to lectures and participating in a workshop, probably having a beer, to bring your dog to the dog run,” he says. “It’s a place to spend physical time with the photography, not so much as a passive viewer.”

Photoville will be held in Brooklyn from June 22 through July 1. More information about the event is available here.

See more work from Bruce Gilden, one of Photoville’s featured photographers, here.

Pirating, Appropriating, and Stealing

TO PIRATE: One who makes use of or reproduces the work of another without authorization.

TO APPROPRIATE: Take (something) for one’s own use, typically without the owner’s permission.

TO STEAL: To take surreptitiously or without permission

This week has been full of bad news about the Internet.  Living in a culture where we hold All-Access-Passes to events on-line means we have to deal with the good and the bad aspects of the world wide web. And the bad has to do with what some human beings choose to do with that access.  I was disgusted when someone hacked into my e-mail last year, and sent everyone in my address book pleas for money, and I am now disgusted by what some very sick individuals are doing for their own gain.

So here is this week’s list of grievances:
I was first contacted by one of my students that a photographer in Italy had taken one of her images, placed it on his website, and was submitting it to competitions…and getting IN!  It was a shocking realization what lengths people will go to for recognition.

The second incident was that a friend discovered a Lenscratch blog post that I had written about her work appearing on a Polish blog,”compiled” by Pawel Filas.  After further investigation, I discovered hundreds of appropriated posts, used without my permission, still continuing on a daily basis. And I am not the only blogger whose content he is appropriating. For my posts, there is a link to “Aline”, so it appears that I am writing for his site.  I am working with other bloggers to get him to cease and desist, though he is not acknowledging our communications.  He has friended a number of photographers on Facebook, and all I can say is buyer beware.
I am wondering if today’s post will appear on Mind_Mag too:

His post:

My post:

Just when I was reeling from the sting of appropriation, a friend alerted me this copy-cat site by someone named Tony Hai who has lifted my entire blog:

I have discussed some of this on Facebook, and through that process, heard many additional tales of appropriated writing and imagery. I am sharing this post so that you will keep an eye on your photographs and writing.  We create our work with the best intensions and put so much labor into what we produce.  Those who appropriate our work are truly criminal.  As a community,hopefully we can work together to create better systems for protection and exposure.  And we need to share our stories and expose those who do us harm.

This is a VERY timely article by Joshua Dunlop on “The Daily Mail Stole My Photographs And I Got Paid“.  Well worth a read as it contains some excellent suggestions.

Use your imagination and submit!

The A Smith Gallery in Johnson City, Texas is offering an photography competition on Imagination and I am the juror!

i-mag-i-na-tion: fabrication, fantasy, illusion, imagery, insight, inspiration, originality, thought, vision, creation, creativity, inventiveness realization.

A rock pile ceases to be a rock pile the moment a single man contemplates it, bearing within him the image of a cathedral. Antoine de Saint Exupery

I paint objects as I think them, not as I see them. Pablo Picasso

Entry Deadline:
January 9, 2012

Exhibition dates:
February 17, 2012 to April 1, 2012

Imagination feeds the need to photograph. Since I can remember, I have loved to create with my mind and my hands. This desire was instilled by a mother and grandmother who shared the same compulsion. These imaginative women taught me to dream and experiment.

I-mag-i-na-tion is your opportunity to imagine and create. Get outside the conventional with this one. Chiropractor Sherman Oaks . Dont just photograph the pear; hide it underneath a cloth napkin and see what happens.

Forty-five images will be selected for exhibition and a Blurb full color catalog of the exhibit will be available for purchase. Cash prizes of $250 each will be awarded for The Jurors Award and The Directors Award, along with a $100 prize for the Visitors Choice Award. There will also be five Honorable Mentions. online radio luisteren .

Creativity is encouraged.