Appalachian Legacy, by Shelby Lee Adams
This is a powerful book of black and white photographs taken over a long time in rural Appalachian Kentucky. A book like this, and its images, serves as a test of the mindset of the reader of the book, as it presents rural folk, most of whom are very poor, live difficult lives, and who are not photographed in flattering ways (not least because they tend to be a plain to unattractive lot), in a very unsympathetic fashion that nonetheless was done with the full consent of the people themselves. As is generally the case here, the author presents this book while also presenting bona fides as to how it was that he was able to gain the trust of these notoriously suspicious people through his own background in the area, a background that includes families of a complex religious past and a grandfather who had as his favorite magazine the Plain Truth during the author’s youth, something that gave me a bit of a smile to read it. Admittedly, I didn’t feel it necessary to smile during most of the photos of this book, as they reminded me of photos of relatives or former neighbors from my youth, and given that, I had little reason to smile.
This particular book of a bit more than 100 pages is made up of various sections of material that show the author’s work on photographing people in rural Eastern Kentucky over the course of decades, returning to the same people year after year and remarking on the course of their lives as well as births and deaths. The author begins with an introduction that discusses his own history, how he moved from an angry atheistic young adult to a more mature and more calm and more faithful adult who had been positively influenced by the faith and practices of those he photographed. The first part of the book looks at the effects of time on a group of people, photographed individually and by family, that show how a wary but attractive child can turn into a woman with an immensely complicated family history whose early experience with an abusive marriage soured her on the institution altogether, or a group of elderly relatives with a taste for Sunday finery. The second part of the book then looks at the passing of generations with photos of children growing up in the rural environment, after which the book closes with acknowledgments.
It must be emphasized that this book is not intended to be a flattering and sentimental portrayal of the lives of its subjects. Moreover, it is evident that the subjects themselves do not appear to want to be photographed in a flattering or sympathetic light. These are generally hard people with hard lives in a hardscrabble land. Admittedly, the scenes the author portrays are not ones that are entirely alien to me, and as a plain person from plain stock myself, I don’t think that the portrayal is either unjust or unkind. In looking at the photos and reading the accompanying essays, it is clear that the subjects of this book neither want nor deserve pity. They live the lives they have as best as they can and appear wary, a bit suspicious, and not really concerned about what the outside world thinks about them and more interested in simply being who they are and being respected on those terms. The author’s focus on the religious message and idiosyncratic signage of the area, and the way that wary children become wary adults, is something that ought to give many readers a great deal of pause.