Elisa Maple started her career as a photojournalist trying to change the world. As she began to burn out, she considered leaving photography altogether. But then she came across a vintage camera, and she saw the world with new eyes. Here’s a conversation we had via email.
KIM HUBBARD: I love that you refer to this series of pictures as a “visual poem of flight.” Did you compose the “poem” in your head as you photographed? Or was it something that just happened naturally?
ELISA MAPLE: This series was photographed at Union Point Park in New Bern, North Carolina. It was my intention to shoot the flight of these birds, as the birds. In essence, it was a journey of the birds until they disperse and nothing is left except the quiet—a metaphor for our own journey in life. I have often said that I shoot in that in-between place where the silence can be seen. I recently came across a quote by Robert Frank: “The eye should learn to listen before it looks.”
The entire series, particularly the sequencing, happened naturally. I saw that it was all there in a single roll, and I would present it as shot from frame one to frame 12. Although I didn’t compose the “poem” in my head, I did make conscious image choices that would create the movement of the birds. Once I start shooting I try not to question my inspiration. I always try to edit my projects so that they have a certain rhythm similar to a poem. That doesn’t always work, especially with the larger projects. But the smaller ones, which I prefer, have to flow, and with “The Flight,” I saw that rhythm immediately.
KIM: What type of camera and film are you using? Have the pictures been digitally altered?
ELISA: I work primarily with film and vintage cameras, as it gives me the space to see, as well as removing that constant need to take a picture that I often feel with digital cameras. This particular series was shot with a vintage 1950s Spartus camera and Tri-X 400 film. With this camera there are no controls except a simple shutter lever. The lack of control allows you to focus (no pun intended) on the light and subject. I sepia-toned the images, which is something that I don’t usually do, but it held the pictures in a way that the black and white couldn’t. The marks and scratches are a natural result from the camera. I haven’t done this type of series before, but will always be open for it in the future. That is the beauty of film—you don’t really know what you have until you process it.
KIM: What types of subjects are you drawn to photographically?
ELISA: I photograph landscapes and people. The image that I am looking for is a combination of light and the essence of the subject, and I feel it when I see it. It is a powerful feeling to truly see the beauty in a landscape or person, and then to be able to capture that in my camera. And then there are those really amazing moments when I see something and I don’t have my camera. . . My stomach drops, and I can physically feel the loss of that image. I keep those lost images as memories and hold onto them for future reference. There are times that I am hyper-aware visually, and others when there is too much noise to see anything. Now I only take my camera out when I am working on a project, as I need time away from photographing, time to see without having to capture it. Then I can go back renewed.
KIM: What are you working on now?
ELISA: Currently, I am working on a few projects: One in the Croatan National Forest and one called The River’s Edge, which documents the vernacular landscape of the Lower Neuse River Basin. And I also just did a short piece in the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores. . . fantastic, although I am not sure what I have yet since I shot film. You start moving with the fish and even though there is glass separating you, you can feel their movement through the water—the ease and beauty of it. It is quite exceptional in the shark tank where the colors are muted and simply gorgeous.
Elisa Maple is based in North Carolina, where she works on projects about environmentally threated landscapes and the creation of meaning and identity through images. You can see more of her work on her website.
Kim Hubbard is a senior photo editor at National Geographic magazine. She focuses on natural history and science, with a special fondness for archaeology and paleontology.