Candela Gallery currently features a pair of exhibitions of portraits that explore two different communities. Lisa Elmaleh used a large format tintype camera to make studied portraits of folk musicians in the Appalachian Mountains, while Brandon Thibodeaux photographed individuals in five rural communities in the northern Mississippi delta. Both photographers have created nostalgic images of the enduring human spirit responding to life’s difficult circumstances.
The alternative and ancient process used by Elmaleh slows down the process of making the portrait into a day long venture as she prepares, exposes, and develops the tintype. The technical and chemical process is arduous and time-consuming, but the exhibit itself is not of the tintypes, rather these have been scanned and transformed into archival pigment prints. The tintype itself is a actually a positive image on a metal plate.
There is a cause and effect impact with these portraits, since the process of long exposure and the rustic nature of the development process requires a portrait in which the subject stands or sits very still and the camera must be placed on a tripod. In addition, the sepia toned quality from the metal plate, which is very prominent in the scanned images, situates these portraits in a bygone era. The photographer has taken a contemporary musician playing a heritage of folk music and overlaid the mystique and romance of the past. These images are quite simply composed, usually with a symmetrical structure, which adds further to their visual stability and general lack of dynamic energy. It is an interesting contradiction given the rapid toe-tapping rhythms of the actual folk music played by the same musicians being depicted. This is a collection of richly toned prints that convey the quiet peace and solitude of a mountain community with none of the challenges that living there might entail. The tintype process is like a color wash that permeates these portraits and pulls them out of this time and pushes them back into a time when we can only remember the good parts.
The black and white rich tonal range and square format of Brandon Thibodeaux’s sensitive portraits of the African American community in the Mississippi delta convey a similar nostalgic quality as Elmaleh portraits, but there is a emotional tension that lies just under the surface.
There is a melancholic quality in many of Thibodeaux’s portraits, as well as expressions of wariness and the subjects seem uneasy.
Even though the composition and framing devices used by the photographer are very stable with centered subject combined with vertical and horizontal lines, the expressions and gestures of the individuals create a psychological tension.
Thibodeaux captures the tension of hard living, of perseverance, and the apprehension of survivors. While they are simple and straightforward images with little pretension or use of photographic devices, the primary expressive tools they employ of person and place, gesture and gaze, are very effective. In contrast to Elmaleh’s community portraits which reveal one perspective, Thibodeaux has created equally timeless portraits with simmering racial and economic tension that aren’t preachy, forced, or blatantly obvious.
More information is available at candelabooks.com and the exhibit will be up through April 17, 2014.
© Douglas Barkey 2014