• February 3, 2015

The Story of Flight Told in One Roll of Film

Kim Hubbard

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.

Picture of a bird in flight

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.

Picture of several birds in flight near a body of water Picture of two birds in flight shot in a close distance from below Picture of a flock of birds flying past a bare tree near a body of water

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.

Picture of a bird in flight in the center of the frame with its wings thrown back and another bird in the bottom left-hand corner of the frame Picture of a bird standing on the ground, close to the camera with other birds in the distance Picture of birds flying in the bottom left-hand corner of the the frame

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.

Picture of a bard tree in front of a body of water with a few birds flying over the tree Picture of birds flying Picutre of two birds in close range flapping their wings mid-flight

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.

Picture of a bare tree in front of a body of water with birds flying in the distance Picture of an empty sky

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.

There are 19 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Rudson Menezes
    February 17, 2015

    Muito Bonito. tem Movimento, Encantador .

  2. B. Fraser
    February 11, 2015

    Beautiful series and interview.

  3. Surendra.bagot
    February 8, 2015


  4. Erkan YILMAZ
    February 8, 2015

    Very nostalgic!

  5. Colette Speer
    February 8, 2015

    Love the fluidness of the movement of the birds. Lovely pictures. Hope to see more from this photographer.

  6. Arlie Herron
    February 7, 2015

    The pictures are beautiful. I wish I had made them. But I’m all the way digital
    now. No more darkroom work. Just the computer and the printer.

  7. AP
    February 6, 2015

    Eileen, why would a modern camera not be capable of long shutter speeds? And I like the “held together by sepia” comment. These are faux vintage pictures, it’s a nostalgia operation. If they were done with an Instagram filter, there would be an outrage. Since it’s done polluting rivers with chemicals, then it’s art.

  8. Eileen Pickett
    February 6, 2015

    The images are lovely and ethereal. The camera used is an old one (vintage) and causes striations on the film. The shutter speeds are not what a newer or digital camera would be capable of therefore motion creates “a blur” effect. This in my opinion adds to the captured beauty of the images.

  9. Gloria Hovde
    February 5, 2015

    Beautiful birds captured in single graceful poses. I am listening to classical music and can almost see them flying above me.

  10. rick amold
    February 5, 2015

    am i the only one here who think’s that the images are terrible???

  11. Chrissy Garlick
    February 4, 2015

    Subtle, beautiful work,…

  12. Emily
    February 4, 2015

    These are beautiful images!

  13. Sheryl Branstetter
    February 3, 2015

    What a gift. The pictures reveal the ethereal beauty of these humble creatures as they, improbably, overcome the forces of gravity and revel in their airborne existence. It really is photographic poetry.

  14. Cinde Reichard
    February 3, 2015

    Very nice, love these images.

  15. Pat Johnson
    February 3, 2015

    Elisa sees in ways that very few others do. She has captured quiet beauty.

  16. Max von Weinstein
    February 3, 2015

    would very much see more work of Elisa Maple, there’s kind of a unique quality here just around the corner..

  17. Catherine Lively
    February 3, 2015

    These photographs have grace and poise- a rarity in photography these days.
    Thanks for sharing these wonderful photographs with us National Geographic, and of course thanks to Ms Maple.

    Really enjoyed them

  18. Denise Owen
    February 3, 2015

    Great interview/article. Awesome photos!

  19. Debra Persons
    February 3, 2015

    Stunning work. I hope to see more from Elisa Maple.

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