American Folk at Foley Gallery

Image above: Matthew Kinman and Moses Nelligan, West Virginia , 2013, 25 x 20 inches, Pigment print

Folk music. Blue jeans. Apple Pie. Baseball. Backyard Barbeques. Chevy. Craftsmanship. Ruggedness.

No one seems to know when, where, or why these symbols were incorporated into the quintessentially American vernacular, but they seem to be with us for the long haul. One can go on forever romanticizing the traditional American culture of yesteryear, or one can go out in search of its modern iteration. In the exhibition American Folk, currently on view at Foley Gallery, photographer Lisa Elmaleh presents an America that most people fail to realize still exists in the twenty-first century. Since 2010 she has created tintype portraits of traditional folk musicians living in and around the Appalachian Mountains. It is hard to believe that anyone is still creating tintypes in the age of digital photography and the iPhone. It is this attention to tradition that defines the series.

AF173-06-13_Jim Costa's Porch

Jim Costa's Porch, West Virginia, 2013, 20 x 25 inches, Pigment print

Both her subject matter and her process, itself a novelty of the 19th century, reflect an emphasis on detail that many contemporary photographers have long forgotten. Like many of her predecessors, Elmaleh uses a large format 8x10 camera and develops her images on site. She works in the tradition of Walker Evans and Paul Strand; her photographs are simple and straightforward with a focus on the individual that seems to reveal something about the character of her sitters. Elmaleh's images are equal parts portrait and documentary. Although they contain many of the formal elements of traditional portraiture, there is a deeper narrative here than just what we see. These images tell a story of a group of people that extends beyond the individuals featured in Elmaleh's photos. The musicians in American Folk of today work in an idiom just as Elmaleh's process is wrapped in nostalgic process.


Hannah Johnson, Keezletown, Virginia, 2012, 12 x 9.5 inches, Pigment print

Despite the rapidity of change in our time, there are still things that remain immutable. Words like 'classic' and 'traditional' have been thrown around to describe what always has been and what always will be. American Folk  perfectly captures the notion of classic Americana.

American Folk is on view at Foley Gallery through August 9th.

Text by Nora Landes

Images courtesy of Foley Gallery

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