Modern-day musicians, old-time feel

Published 27th January 2016
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Modern-day musicians, old-time feel
Written by By Allison Love, CNN
Pat Shields holds his mandolin close to his body, his hands weathered from years of playing the instrument.
Janice Birchfield poses with a washtub bass that's taller than she is.
Against a backdrop of chopped wood, Ralph Roberts holds his fiddle to his shoulder.
These photos, captured on tintypes, seem to transcend any specific point in time. They were taken by Lisa Elmaleh as part of her project "American Folk" -- a portrait series documenting folk musicians in and around the Appalachian Mountains.
Photographer Lisa Elmaleh
Photographer Lisa Elmaleh Credit: Lisa Elmaleh
Since 2010, Elmaleh has immersed herself in the community, photographing musicians in their own environment. The music, known as old-time music or "porch-playing music," is distinctly tied to the region and goes back generations.
The music's rich history makes Elmaleh's choice of medium -- the tintype -- seem natural. "I chose this process because it's a historical kind of music and it's a historical photographic process," she said.
Tintype photography became popular in the 1850s as a more affordable and more readily available alternative to expensive daguerreotypes. During the process, a metal plate is coated with collodion and placed in a silver nitrate bath, where it becomes light-sensitive. While the plate is still wet, it's exposed and developed.
"It was democratic," Elmaleh said of the tintype process. "Like the music, it's for everyone."
Elmaleh built a darkroom in the back of her 1996 Toyota Tacoma.
Elmaleh built a darkroom in the back of her 1996 Toyota Tacoma. Credit: Lisa Elmaleh
Elmaleh, who has photographed with an 8x10 camera since college, built a darkroom in the back of her pickup truck that allows her to go where the musicians are most comfortable.
"I generally go to the musician's house," she said. "The land, to me, is equally as important a character in the documentation of this music. I photograph them in their own landscape."
Tintype photography requires a large amount of light, and subjects must remain still during long exposures.
"It's an arduous process," Elmaleh said. "It's an honor that anyone would take the time out of their day."
The act of making portraits this way is an intimate one, and Elmaleh has grown close to the musicians she photographs.
"You're really present, and there's this moment that gets shared between the photographer and the musician," she said.
The experience left a lasting impression on her, and she fondly remembers small details from each shoot -- like the smell of the wood Roberts chopped and stacked himself , the clothesline in his yard, and the chicken and dumplings his wife made. Elmaleh has even learned the guitar and plays with the musicians whenever she can.
"These are my people," she said. "They are my family. It's been a really good journey getting to know the people that I've met through making these pictures."
Photographer Lisa Elmaleh is based in West Virginia and teaches at the Penumbra Foundation and the School of Visual Arts in New York. Follow her on Facebook, Instagram and Visura.