Lisa Elmaleh is a West Virginia-based photographer who earned a BA in photography from the School of Visual Arts in New York City. She works with a large-format (8”x10”) camera in the wet-plate collodion process. This method was widespread in the nineteenth century but is rare in contemporary photography. She also is an educator who teaches historic techniques at the School of the Visual Arts and the Penumbra Foundation in New York City. The wet-collodion process only allows for one photograph to be taken at a time and because the image must be shot and developed all while the chemicals are still wet on the image plate, Elmaleh travels with a portable darkroom in the back of her truck and completes each image, one at a time, on location within about a thirty-minute window. She has been awarded the Aaron Siskind Foundation IPF Grant (2011) and The Everglades National Park Artist Residency (2010), among other awards. Her work is in the collections of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, New Orleans, and the Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach.
Elmaleh’s images include a series of anachronistic-looking photographs called American Folk. These works portray Appalachian folk musicians who preserve traditional music posing with their instruments. Her photograph Janice Birchfield (2013), for example, presents one of the leading members of the Roan Mountain Hilltoppers, an old-time string band started more than thirty years ago in Tennessee. Birchfield stands in her yard with her washtub bass instrument. Elmaleh’s wet-plate photography has the wide black-and-white value range characteristic of the process. The musician and her instrument are in sharp focus while much of the plant life around her is soft. The overall image shows no obvious signs of the twenty-first century and instead feels like something that could have been taken a century before.
The photographer also created a series called Everglades, which focuses on the unique environment of South Florida. Shot in Everglades National Park and the broader Everglades environs, Elmaleh’s photographs document a natural wonder that has suffered pollution, water loss, and loss of area due to development. Like her photographs of folk musicians, this set of photographs addresses small sections of rural America that preserve something that existed before modern life and its technologies. Her photograph Mangroves (2010), included on the Southbound website, presents a timeless swampy scene with no evidence of human presence. Coming across the image with no information about the photographer, one might have difficulty dating it. As with Elmaleh’s photographs of folk musicians (who live in the twenty-first century and maintain digital presences on social media), the Everglades photographs intentionally elide signs of the inevitable effects of modern culture and technology. By doing so, they provide a visual opportunity for escape from our present frenetic times to seek a slower pace.
Implicit in Elmaleh’s choice of subjects is the goal of at least momentarily holding onto something that largely has been lost to time. This carries through her choice of technique, too. The wet-plate collodion process fell out of favor with the development of faster, cheaper, and easier forms of photography. It has, however, experienced a cult resurgence in our digital age as some practitioners want to return to a slower process that allows the photographer to take personal control over the entire image-creation process, from start to finish. This demands learning now-obscure nineteenth-century technical skills, but it also leaves the DIY photographer independent from photography suppliers or manufacturers who update and change their products regularly. Though few photographers know these skills, those who do share a small, connected community, much like the Appalachian musicians Elmaleh portrays in her photographs.