• Musings:
  • July 14, 2014

Musings: Lisa Elmaleh’s Lyrical Tintypes From Appalachia

Becky Harlan

“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.

Picture of a folk musician with a beard, a tintype image that was printed on archival paper
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.”

Picture of a woman holding a banjo, a tintype image that was printed on archival paper
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.

Picture of a pair of hands holding a musical instrument, a tintype image that was printed on archival paper
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.

Picture of two men standing in the woods, holding their musical instruments, a tintype image that was printed on archival paper
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.

There are 18 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Billy Cornette
    July 2, 2015

    I saw that tintype photo of myself and thought….”that must be a picture of my great, great grandfather. THese picture take us back to a calmer and simpler time.

  2. Gina
    January 17, 2015

    Your photography is simply and definitely music for the eyes!

  3. David Evans
    July 28, 2014

    Always loved Appalachian music wanted to walk the trail. I guess you got into it pretty deep meeting those people must have been great what a history back to Elizabethan times the music often seems to reflect that period the rhythms and melodies are shadows of the past but the people are from today the tradition has kept going. I’m from England played folk music and pick the blues at home mostly these days but the English folk music and Appalachian folk music are out of the same bag each has taken a diverse path but Appalachian I think more reflects the original. The photos were great gave a great sense of an earlier time, I felt those people and places could actually have been from that era
    A great feeling of tradition there. Keep it hope to see more of your work

  4. Paul Shoffner
    July 28, 2014

    Lisa Elmaleh’s stunning images sing with the same native energy of this most American root music. We call it “Old Time”, as it is a form much earlier and different from Bluegrass, and kept that way by those who play and love it’s soulful authenticity and earthy pedigree. Attend an OT gathering, convention or festival and learn what pure Americana means.

  5. M Worley
    July 28, 2014

    I really enjoyed the article and the music. Having grown up in Tennessee in the 40’s and 50’s it brings back fond memories. I think I saw an episode on some tv program of you traveling in west virginia, Tennesse and North Carolina capturing your music It was very enjoyable. Keep up the good work

  6. Moira
    July 27, 2014

    Love reading this article about your work Lisa and the way you compare what you do and why you love it to trad music. This quote here “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.” – I can translate that to trad music so easily! Can’t wait to read the Oxford American article!

  7. Bill Bien
    July 18, 2014

    Comment earlier about Townsend and The Fox Hunt was right on point. That band was one of the best. I was also lucky to see them in Richmond. I believe that there may a little breath left in The Fox Hunt.

  8. Jay Ladin
    July 17, 2014

    Beautiful pictures. She photographs them & Howard Rains draws & then paints their portraits.

  9. Eric Root
    July 17, 2014

    Dang, I know all those people.

  10. rick townsend
    July 16, 2014

    just love you it .would like to get a cd one day . love bluegrass

  11. Seth Gainer
    July 15, 2014

    I would highly recommend anyone who enjoys the music of Ben Townsend to check out his previous band, The Fox Hunt. One of the best bluegrass bands of the past decade, and I was lucky enough to see them a couple times at the Purple Fiddle.

  12. Karen Knowles
    July 15, 2014

    Very interesting article and great music too.

  13. Lane
    July 15, 2014

    Love these photos and the timeless Appalachian narrative Elmaleh is capturing. Excellent piece, certainly makes me long for the mountains…

  14. Amanda
    July 15, 2014

    “Harmony” and “imperfection” at once – present in the photos and the music both. Together, they are hypnotic. Thanks for sharing this with the world !

  15. constantrin popa
    July 15, 2014

    Muzica aceasta este mai mult decat cea cantata in vestul salbatic, este o muzica tipic americana .

  16. Karen Greer
    July 14, 2014

    Great article and pictures!! What a history. Thanks for sharing with us!!

  17. Donna
    July 14, 2014

    Perfect medium to capture these artists. Glad to know traditions are being passed on to future generations.

  18. Jim Harlan
    July 14, 2014

    “Look a-yonder comin’
    Comin’ down that railroad track
    Hey, look a-yonder comin’
    Comin’ down that railroad track
    It’s the Orange Blossom Special
    Bringin’ my baby back.”

    Thanks for helping me relive the memories of my Appalachian roots.

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