Photographer Lisa Elmaleh, who lives in Paw Paw, West Virginia, makes tintype portraits of old-time musicians, and the process, created in the 1850s, takes a while. “Most of the people in the photos are leaning,” she said at an appearance at FIT on October 2. That’s because her subjects need to hold still for the 25 or so seconds it takes to render the image.
Elmaleh learned photography at Manhattan’s School of Visual Arts, but she abandoned New York for Appalachia in 2012. In part, she said, she needed to save money while paying off hefty student loans; her rent in West Virginia is just $200 a month. But the move also reflected her desire to slow down to a non–New York pace and get to know her community. The tintype camera is enormous, and the time it takes to set it up, capture the images, and make the prints, allows her to build relationships with the people she photographs. Each picture of a musician represents a full day of work. She also wanted to learn about nature and her neighbors. One man, who was illiterate but knew everything about plants, took his own life. Another man chopped down a tree, which fell on his own car. His girlfriend turned to Elmaleh and said, “Well, he never did like that car.”
A student asked how Elmaleh achieved recognition in a world of photography influenced by the fast-moving world of social media. “Social media was less of a thing when I graduated” in 2008, she said. “It’s kind of a waste of time—though it does get you seen by editors.” She submitted to open calls for photography everywhere she could. An editor from Harper’s magazine published a piece of hers after seeing it in a group show. Another student asked whether the tintype process gives her work a special meaning. “The process doesn’t make your art more meaningful,” Elmaleh said. “I think the meaning has to come from you.”