© Lisa Elmaleh, Pavrotis Palms, 2010. From the series Everglades.
1. A graduate of The School of Visual Arts, New York in 2007, we’re guessing that your education has most probably involved photographing on film from the start. Today finds you working as a wet plate photographer of old times carrying a heavy 8×10 camera to the four corners of the nation: can you speak a little of your transition from film to the Collodion process?
Well, I love history and photographs from the early days of photography – photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron, William Henry Jackson, Lady Clementina Hawarden, theirs were photographs that excited me. I have always had an affinity for the darkroom as well – one of my early memories as a child, was when my father took me to the darkroom. I remember standing at the edge of the darkroom sink, and watching the images come up in the chemistry – that was magic.
During my college years, I started using historical printing processes for a project I was working on, which was a visual elegy for my grandmother. The salted paper prints became the voice, and the photographs I made were the message. I became interested in hand coated processes, because they were so important to conveying the message.
When I graduated from the School of Visual Arts, I received a fellowship from the Tierney Family Foundation. I proposed a project where I would travel across the country, driving on back roads, and photograph using the glass negative process that the historical photographers of the American landscape used in the 1800’s, before the land was developed. I, however, would be a woman traveling alone, in my car, using back roads in a now-developed country.
When I received the Tierney Fellowship, I learned the process, built a very rudimentary little darkroom in my car, and headed away from Brooklyn. That was how it all started, with my first project, shot on 8×10 glass negatives, Rooted.
© Lisa Elmaleh, Hogslop String Band. Harpeth River, TN, 2010. From the series American Folk.
2. For most people, the recurring question on the topic of film photography is “why”? Why photographing on film in 2013? But in your case, a more relevant question would be: Why would a young 21st C. photographer pick a demanding 19th C. process to photograph today? What do you think?
Most things that are worth doing are hardly ever easy. I don’t think being a photographer is easy. I don’t think being an artist is easy, particularly in this crazy financial mess. I don’t think that life is easy, but what you do to fill your days matters. If you are doing what you love, if you are doing it with effort, with care, if it takes you to new places, if it helps you grow, that is what’s important.
The collodion process itself is dictated by the work I am doing. Some projects need to be shot on film, some projects need to be shot on glass negatives, some need to be shot as tintypes. Who knows, maybe some day I will do a project photographing meatloafs, and they might dictate a particular need to be printed on aluminum foil loaf pans. The process is an essential part of the message. The collodion process itself is actually quite simple, but it’s the other parts – figuring out how to pay for gas, figuring out how to make time to make the work – that can be challenging.
3. When not working on Collodion projects, do you happen to photograph digitally sometimes? If yes, what’s your rationale for it?
No, I have never owned a digital camera. I have a phone that makes pictures, and sometimes I’ll take snapshots of funny messages on bathroom walls and such to send to friends, but that’s about the extent of my digital photography. Oh, and using the Duck Dynasty beard app – I love putting beards on people.
© Lisa Elmaleh | 1. Ralph Roberts, Frametown, WV, 2012 | 2. Ben Townsend, Jones Spring, WV. From the series American Folk.
4. As a photographer, your work and life seem uniquely entangled, akin to mirroring images chasing after the same themes of migration, worlds of nature, the great American West and the freedom of space: could this binding relationship of personal life and photographic projects somehow relate to the Collodion process as your photographic medium of choice?
All of my work is deeply personal. It’s pretty much all of who I am. I live it, every day. I do work that is important to me – for instance, photographing in the Everglades of South Florida, a landscape that is rapidly falling into a state of no return. This landscape is my home, it’s where I am from, and it matters to me.
The collodion process is my photographic medium of choice for some projects, and different reasons for each project. For my Everglades work, for instance, I was working with the collodion glass negative process, which was widely used by USGS photographers in the 1800s who photographed the majestic, mountainous landscapes of the American west. The Everglades, however, in the 1800s, were being drained and built upon for urban and agricultural use. The landscape wasn’t valued as a unique ecosystem, there were no mountains, no waterfalls. The Everglades are pretty flat, they were looked at as a nuisance, better used for commercial farmland and real estate. The damages that were done at that time, the draining canals, the road that cuts across from Tampa to Miami, they all laid the groundwork for the demise of the landscape. Nowadays, the Everglades require fresh water be pumped in from the cities to survive.
My work utilizes this process to draw that line back in history. The collodion process also renders light slowly, revealing the passing of time, a quality which is essential to this work – it shows the landscape, alive, living, moving.
5. FOTOFILMIC is dedicated to promoting the new generations of photographers attached to film today: what essential advice/recommendation would you have for them?
Hey, do what you love. Because at the end of each day, if you can be thankful, if you can be happy, that’s worth more than all the money in the world.
There was a night that I spent in West Virginia during my trip out in August, with a new friend I had made this year. It was after sunset, and there was a power outage throughout town. And as we were sitting in the dying twilight by the window, he told me this one bit of advice – do what you love, do what matters to you, and do it with passion.
© Lisa Elmaleh, Unmarked Grave, Nevada. From the series Lonesome Valley.
6. You spent your childhood in Miami, Florida, and now live in Brooklyn, New York: obviously two very different cities with only the east coast in common. How do you find the film/analog photography industry and culture doing over there? Any major differences or advantages for film photographers moving there?
There are some real advantages to living in New York City, for sure, for analog film photographers. There are plenty of labs that process film, for one. There are lots of stores that sell film, as well. I know from experience not many stores sell film across modern-day America.
I have to say, one of the greatest assets that New York has for analog photography is the Center for Alternative Photography, which is a school I have taught at for a handful of years now. The Center for Alternative Photography is a school, a library, a resource, and a community of analog photographers that has really been important to me and my growth these past few years. And through the Center for Alternative Photography, I have had the opportunity to watch others learn and grow as well.
I also teach analog historical processes at the School of Visual Arts, and that has been a real community builder as well. My students have been incredibly inspiring and hard-working, and that energy has become important in my life.
7. What have you been up to recently? Any recent achievements, projects, news?
In August, I spent the entire month living in my truck, photographing in the Appalachian mountains for my “American Folk” series. It was one of the best months of my life. I made so many new photographs. I danced, a lot. I met so many new, incredible musicians that I love dearly. I am currently trying to figure out when and how I can get back there for an extended period of time and keep working on the project.
I currently have a piece in the “Mythology of Florida” group show in Louisiana at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art – a 30×40 gelatin silver print from my Everglades series. I have a couple of shows that are currently in the oven for 2014, but they aren’t fully cooked yet, so stay tuned. I post pretty regularly on my blog, http://oldpapersheets.blogspot.com, whenever there is some kind of news or another.
© Lisa Elmaleh, The Cheese Holes, Nevada. From the series Lonesome Valley.
8. If anything was possible, what would be your next ultimate project photography-wise (or else)?
I am happy with the “American Folk” project I am working on – I don’t think I’d want to be working on anything else right now. I am putting all of my energy and focus on that. It’s taken me to some of the most incredible places, brought me to some of the best musicians in America. I typically spend a full day with each musician, photograph them on their own property – each day has been a new adventure, a new friend made, a new place I’ve never been.
All of my projects thus far have come to fruition very organically, according to what was happening in my life at that moment. I try to leave room for that, leave the door open for the spirits, for chance. There is no telling what will come next, but I am excited for it, and I will meet it at the door with open arms.
FotoFilmic’s new FILM TALKS series is all about sharing experienced views, artistic endeavors, industry outlooks and how to reshape the contemporary practices at the center of the film photography medium today. FILM TALKS invite advanced artists, independent publishers, photo editors and art dealers, as well as the broad creative crowd of visual arts to engage in insightful dialogues with FotoFilmic about film photography in all aspects.