Photograph by Lisa Elmaleh
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Jim’s Porch, Talcott, West Virginia, 2013
Photograph by Lisa Elmaleh

Musings: Lisa Elmaleh’s Lyrical Tintypes From Appalachia

“The guys are here working on the well outside so that I can have pump water, and one of them needs to use the phone,” photographer Lisa Elmaleh explains over the phone from a cabin in West Virginia during the first minute of our conversation. She asks if she can call me back. I am immediately reminded of being at home in northeast Tennessee, listening to my mom talk on the phone, the windows open and a breeze carrying the chatter of neighbors inside. An interruptible, unhurried existence.

Maybe it’s sentimental, but for me, the familiar, leisurely tone of life in the Appalachian Mountains recalls a sense of enduring rootedness. That’s why I wanted to talk to Elmaleh—her images of folk musicians resonate with me in that same way, tapping into a collective, unwavering tradition.

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Ben Townsend, Jones Spring, West Virginia, 2012

Hear “Rattle Down the Acorns,” recorded by The Iron Leg Boys
Band member, Ben Townsend, is pictured in the above tintype.

Before Elmaleh, a Miami native and New York City transplant, started photographing folk musicians, her projects revolved around the landscape. But traditional music was often playing in her darkroom. “There’s a certain rhythm to it that made sense when I was out photographing the land.” So in 2010, She decided to turn her camera on the people who make the music that she says “inspires me and keeps me going.”

And like dominos, the momentum from the first piece has kept her going ever since.

“The very first band that I photographed, which was the Hogslop String Band, one of the musicians said ‘I’d love for you to meet the person who I learned traditional music from, and took me back to Georgia and introduced me. That was Pat Shields. And Pat Shields said, ‘You need to come to Clifftop, West Virginia. There’s a music festival that happens there.’ That’s where I met Ben Townsend, and I’ve spent probably a good month traveling around with Ben. He’s introduced me to a lot of people. And in turn, those people have introduced me to others. When things are really connected like that you have to kind of just follow the path until it dead ends. And so far this path has been really fertile.”

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Alice Gerrard, Durham, North Carolina, 2013

A network like that is often steeped in tradition, which is a vital part of Elmaleh’s vision—not only in what she’s photographing, but also how she’s photographing it. Her process of choice? The tintype, which was invented in 1853, and was the photographic medium that the average American at that time would have had access to. “It was the first medium where you start to see working class people wearing working class clothes. Glass was so expensive, and tin was so cheap. So the tintype process is historically a process that was very democratic. You could be extremely wealthy or working class and have a tintype made,” she explains.

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Patrick Shields, Georgia, 2011

Elmaleh also appreciates that the process is do-it-yourself. “That’s what drove me to use the wet plate process. I could make my negative from scratch. I didn’t need to go to the store to buy a box of film. There are certain mistakes and things that happen really organically with the process. It really reflects a lot of things about what I’m photographing—it’s imperfect. There’s a harmony to it.” Because tintypes have to be exposed and developed while the emulsion is still wet, she built a darkroom in her truck, which she named “Harriet,” after her grandmother. The portable studio allows her to travel from state to state, meeting with the musicians in their own environment. “Most of these musicians are from the Appalachian Mountains, and some of them work the land, so that’s a big part of the project too,” she says.

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Moses Nelligan and Matt Kinman, West Virginia, 2013

I wonder if Elmaleh feels like she is capturing traces of a lifestyle that will eventually disappear. She says that’s not the case:

“There’s this swing where there are a lot of young people coming into traditional music, and I don’t disclude them. They’re as much a part of the project as the older folks. It’s still being passed on. There’s something about the people who are playing this music—I’m intrigued and humbled and fascinated by the tradition, and the discipline, and their connection to the land. There’s this kind of wisdom to it that we should be proud of.”

Curious, I ask Elmaleh if she plays any instruments. Sure enough, she says, “I’m trading photographs for guitar lessons next week.” It does seem that the music is carrying on.

Lisa Elmaleh’s work will be featured in an exhibition at Foley Gallery in New York City from July 17-August 9. See more of Elmaleh’s project American Folk on her website and follow her adventures on Instagram.

Hear more of Ben Townsend’s music on his Bandcamp site.

Follow Becky Harlan on Twitter and Instagram.