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photo-eye Book Reviews: Salt & Truth

Salt & Truth, By Shelby Lee Adams.
Published by Candela Books, 2011.
Salt & Truth
Reviewed by Karen Jenkins
Shelby Lee Adams Salt & Truth
Photographs by Shelby Lee Adams. Introduction by James L. Enyeart. Text by Shelby Lee Adams, Catherine Evans
Candela Books, 2011. Hardbound. 120 pp., 80 tritone illustrations, 9-3/4x12".

The Appalachian hollers of Eastern Kentucky are a restorative realm for Shelby Lee Adams and photography a tonic. Having dwelled there as a child, he has returned to photograph for nearly forty years. Adams reveres the rural tempo and traditions of this place, fueled by his belief that such an authentic, "salt of the earth" culture should be preserved, both in image and fact. Change is coming to these isolated communities and Adams' latest monograph, Salt & Truth from Candela Books feels like something that needs to be said, while there's still time. This collection pushes back against the material assault of the satellite dishes and SUV's seen more overtly in previous works. Where these mountain roads will lead is less sure than in years past, and Adams also pulls inward in defense of his subjects and himself, in a subtle recalibration of the domestic views that define his work.

Salt & Truth, by Shelby Lee Adams. Published by Candela Books, 2011.
Adams inhabits these images through the force of his own history, and in his signature style. Weathered wood and wire fencing are frame and backdrop to portraits containing a nuanced range of self-expression and sense of occasion. Structural beams, open car doors and light itself divide picture planes, suggesting layers of time and interior worlds, and creating dramatic shifts in mood and meaning such as in Benny and Arch. Two side-by-side portraits of a girl named Tammy are separated by five years' time and experience. A young child inhabits a closed-off world of elemental symbols, strange fish and the swirling realm of a Disney princess. Later, she emerges from the darkened interior of a culvert pipe, against the backdrop of a thought balloon- like sphere, containing her matter-of-fact circumstances of home.
Salt & Truth, by Shelby Lee Adams. Published by Candela Books, 2011.
Salt & Truth, by Shelby Lee Adams. Published by Candela Books, 2011.
Language is also worked over and put to work in service of Adam's mission, beginning with the volume's potent title. He writes a detailed history of his Appalachian roots and a sometimes defensive, but largely lyrically self-assured statement on the intrinsic value of his subjects and legitimacy of his work. For Adams, photography is a self-affirming collaboration and he feels a responsibility to engage his subjects with their own depictions from the Polaroid tests that begin his process (seen in tacit approval on the counter of Billy Ray) to final prints given to all he photographs. This is a compelling exchange that enriches a consideration of this work. Nevertheless, the use of the word truth in this volume feels both too grandiose and too narrow. This is art after all, and for me, is at its most powerful in those sweet spots of discovery where my own expectations of the medium and my fellow human beings collide with not what is true or false, but with what he and they aim to show of their best, or strongest or most tender selves where the mind's eye meets the printed page.—KAREN JENKINS

Selected as one of the Best Books of 2011 by:
Susan Burnstine
Antone Dolezal
Larissa Leclair

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KAREN JENKINS earned a Master's degree in Art History, specializing in the History of Photography from the University of Arizona. She has held curatorial positions at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, AZ and the Demuth Museum in Lancaster, PA. Most recently she helped to debut a new arts project, Art in the Open Philadelphia, that challenges contemporary artists to reimagine the tradition of creating works of art en plein air for the 21st century.