Lyrical Portraits

Lisa Elmaleh turns to a near-lost photographic process to capture a Southern music tradition

Photo: Susana Raab

A bottle of homemade collodion next to Elmaleh's tintype of pickers Moses Nelligan and Matthew Kinman, of Clifftop, West Virginia.

The sepia tones and shadowy edges of Lisa Elmaleh‘s photographs so resemble Civil War–era portraits that you expect the subjects to be gripping Enfield muskets and bone saws. Instead, they brandish banjos and fiddles.

“Taking photographs is an act of preservation,” says Elmaleh, who crisscrosses Appalachia to document musicians, primarily players of classic mountain tunes, for her ongoing “American Folk” project. Though her subjects aren’t famous in a mainstream, commercial sense, they nonetheless matter for their commitment to sustaining a fading art. “For me, this project is about capturing the people who have practiced so hard and hold the traditions of this music together,” she says.

She could employ a digital camera toward this goal, of course, but Elmaleh eschews that convenience, along with most technical advances her profession has made over the last century. Instead she’s retrofitted a bread-box-size 1940s Century Universal camera to expose thin metal-plate tintypes, one of the earliest photographic mediums, dating to the 1850s. The results, shimmering with ethereal light and deli-cate detail, underscore the dedication that those pictured have to music rooted in that same era. “People who play old-time music get why I’m using a process from the 1800s,” she says. “They can usually give my artistic statement better than I can.”

Elmaleh, who moved from Miami to New Jersey as a teenager and now lives in New York City, became enthralled by early photography while attending the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. A series of workshops and apprenticeships focused on historical processes led to grants to use wet-plate techniques to shoot landscapes from the Everglades to Idaho. On those long solo road trips, she “started a love affair with this folk music on the radio without realizing it was still alive today.”

She met the first musicians she ended up photographing at a wedding; they, in turn, pointed her toward a network of fellow old-time pickers and fiddlers across Appalachia. Soon, whenever Elmaleh wasn’t working at home, she was driving south in her trusty 1996 Toyota Tacoma pickup, outfitted both as a mobile darkroom and a camper. She’s racked up 90,000 miles down countless back roads in the rig (nicknamed Harriet after her grandmother), capturing portraits in Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, and beyond. But she’s committed to continuing her journey until she has documented every one of these musicians she can find—a shutterbug equivalent of Alan Lomax, the revered ethnomusicologist who hauled bulky recording equipment to country churches and sharecropper shacks for the Library of Congress in the mid-twentieth century. “To photograph a musician, it’s very important that I document them where they live,” Elmaleh says. “I sometimes camp in their yard and eat with them. It’s about getting to know that person before they sit in front of the big camera with the giant lens.”

When that moment comes, she first coats a rectangular tintype plate with homemade collodion, a gluey chemical compound that served dual purposes during the Civil War—making photographs and sealing battlefield wounds. Elmaleh then bathes the plate in silver nitrate to render it light sensitive, pushes the plate into the wooden camera box, and exposes it until her well-honed instincts about the light tell her it’s ready—all while her subject strives to remain motionless. “When someone sits still for even just ten seconds, they get introspective,” she says. “You can feel and see that moment. I’m addicted to that.”

Elmaleh has to repeat the exacting process for every shot. And so she usually ends up with only four or five tintypes at the end of any given day—not to mention bare feet stained by stray droplets of silver nitrate, and a slight head rush from the chemicals.

Laborious though the method may be, the resulting images—the Hogslop String Band standing ankle-deep in Tennessee’s Harpeth River, or Hannah Johnson caressing a banjo amid the hollows of Keezletown, Virginia—are arresting enough to have caught the attention of curators and gallerists. “The effect is timeless and beautiful, much like formal portraits looked in the mid-nineteenth century,” says Gordon Stettinius, the founder of Candela Books and Gallery in Richmond, Virginia, who has displayed Elmaleh’s work.

Photo: Susana Raab


To date, Elmaleh has photographed about a hundred musicians—and recently began shooting 16-millimeter films of each performing a song, as well. Though she is saving the original metal plates in case a museum wants to house them someday, she does offer a limited number of prints for sale, and plans to publish a larger collection of her work soon.

And when all that’s done, will she be tempted to make her life easier with a nice point-and-shoot camera? “Doing digital has never made sense for me because it takes all the magic away,” Elmaleh says without hesitation. “I’d be more likely to take up painting.”