In this interview, Lisa Elmaleh discusses how, above all else, it's about making the work.
Hi, Lisa, let's start by introducing you. What’s your elevator pitch?
Oh, God, I haven’t done an elevator pitch in—I mean, you kinda gotta remember that I totally removed myself from people. I mean, not “totally.” I don’t know if I really have a good elevator pitch anymore. I’m a photographer and a teacher and, yeah, I guess that’s it.
What stage in your career would you consider yourself? I wouldn’t consider you an emerging artist anymore, but maybe you still do.
Well, it's hard to say the actual length and breadth of a career, so the word “emerging”—what are you emerging from? What does that even mean? And then, “mid-career”—what if I live to be ninety, then am I really mid-career [now]? Because I’ve only been doing this for, you know, twelve years or so. I guess where I feel I am in my career is [that] I am established in my own necessity for doing my work. So whether that is mid-career or not, I guess, is up to the outsider. But I know that I can't live a life where I'm not doing my work. [I know that much is true. I had gotten to that point a while ago.]
You finished The School of Visual Arts (SVA) with a BFA in Photography back in 2007. A conversation I frequently have with artists is how our degrees didn't prepare us to be practicing artists: we weren't taught how to network; how to research residencies, grants, or, contests; or how to budget outside of the educational resources we were so accustomed to. After you finished your undergrad, how did you navigate transitioning into a professional photographer? Did you feel like you were lacking an understanding of things?
[Absolutely. That’s one of the great fallacies of art school. It’s hard to say that – I guess it is like the snake eating it’s own tail, now that I’m a teacher, but I try my best to be open and honest with my students about what life and the job market is like post school.
I took out an enormous amount of loans to pay for school. I didn’t fully understand what I was signing up for, and neither did my mom, who cosigned my loans. The first bill I got was a real shock – it was more than my rent. I don’t think there is anything to prepare you for that. A lot of my students have a hard time finding work in the arts when they graduate – there are not enough jobs to support the amount of students coming out of art schools.]
Do you remember what your first steps were, what that first year was like?
Well, I was pretty fortunate. I really fell deep into the most unlikely job, which was historic photographic processes. I really fell into doing historic photographic processes in school and so, just by chance, I was interning for Mike and Doug Starn and after [I graduated], their head carbon printer was leaving to move to Pittsburgh. They had an opening and they were like, “Hey, we know that you do this crazy stuff. Do you wanna be our carbon printer?” And [I] was like, “Sure.” Here’s the most unlikely thing [that] just fell right into my lap. So I worked there for a few years and I was their carbon printer. Then the recession hit, they went bankrupt, they moved to Beacon, and I lost my job. There’s not really a lot of people out there looking for [a] carbon printer at one given time.
I kinda floated for a long time looking for work because everyone was losing their jobs at that time. I went to the Penumbra Foundation and said, “Hey, I know how to do this process and I know nobody teaches it here yet. Would you guys ever want to do a class in carbon printing?” They were like, “Sure,” and thus began my teaching career.
That’s funny that you would confess to being bad at marketing because I would imagine that’s a big part of eating and paying rent. How do you navigate that if it’s such a struggle for you?
I am really fortunate to have people in my life who are advocates for my work. I think that certain people out there in the world have spoken up for me, or serendipity brings me to the right place at the right time, and I know that this is going to sound really lame and really hokey and like, “How do you pay your rent?”: I really believe, I really trust, in the universe. I know that everything’s gonna work out; it has to because there's no other choice. If I don't have a safety net, I’ll figure out whatever I gotta do. If I gotta go work at Walmart for a year, I gotta go work at Walmart for a year.
There’s so much wasted energy worrying, and I did that when I lived in New York. You worry, “Where’s my next paycheck gonna come from? I need to work the seventh job so I can pay my rent and my student loans.”
I think funding is always a concern for an artist; it was for me when I practiced. You decided to do a Kickstarter campaign for The Everglades in 2010. Kickstarter was only founded in 2009, so that company, and the concept of crowd funding, was still quite new. How did you navigate generating support in that new outlet?
That’s kind of a funny story. That’s when you had to apply to Kickstarter. You couldn’t just have a Kickstarter, you had to be like, “This is what I’m gonna do with the Kickstarter; here’s what I propose.” And they were like, “Yes, we at Kickstarter accept your project, or no, we do not accept your project.”
I didn't even know about Kickstarter, but I did this project with the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council (LMCC). They have this thing called the Artist Summer Institute; you go to Governor’s Island for five days in a row in the summer and you learn the basics of marketing and websites and writing an elevator pitch. They told us about Kickstarter.
I knew I was going to the Everglades, I knew that I had [a] residency there set up for me, and I knew that I needed money. So I put it up there [on Kickstarter]. I really didn’t think it was going to work, but I gave it my all and it worked.
Why did you decide to leave New York?
I left New York for a lot of reasons, but I think the biggest was that I wanted to focus on making my own work [rather] than working so that I could pay the rent. For a long time, I felt like [you’re] working as many jobs as humanly possible until you feel like you're going to die, and then barely making it still, and then barely having any time to make your work. So the move [to West Virginia] was really a conscious effort to refocus my life on making my work in a place that inspires me and influences me.
There are so many things being sacrificed [living outside] a city like that. What has that move done for your practice?
The hardest part of leaving New York [has been] the friends I don’t get to see. Although, when you live in New York you don’t get to see your friends anyways because everyone’s so busy. My focus is always on making the work. One of my professors in college would say, “If you make the work, it will be seen. It may be seen when you're dead, but it will be seen.” Even when I was meeting curators and gallerists, I don’t know if I fit into that world anyway.
You're not internet friendly, but I would imagine that [after] leaving New York, online communication has become an even more important method to connect with collectors and clients. How do you utilize the internet to further your practice?
Last year I did the Visura residency and they kinda transferred my entirety [of work] over to the Visura platform. Visura is a really interesting platform and I actually have gotten work from it. I think the way they do it is a little different—it’s like there's a mother goose and they kind of protect your eggs, so that editors can see work that you’re not putting out to the general public. I love what they're doing, [and] I think I’m gonna put some prints up online for super cheap and sell through this online gallery thing because they are so many online galleries out there—it can be a little disconcerting.
[There are] lower-cost things I have on my website, like my book, but for collectors, and for people who have already collected my work, I have to hold that respect for them because they have this object, and if it’s an edition of seven, it’s an edition of seven. They already bought one; you can’t be screwing around on them.
Would you say that your concern is not in building new relationships?
I would say that new relationships kind of show up, regardless of me networking or not. So networking is not the priority; making work is the priority, and then people seem to show up, and they show up when they show up. I [don’t] go out and try to find new people to network with, I just speak to the people that I know and trust.
How did you end up finding a publisher for The Everglades?
Andrew found me. He was a boyfriend of a friend, who became a friend, who started his own publishing company.
You still do a combination of commission work and teaching to support yourself. Would you say that's best for you, since your projects require you to have a flexible schedule for traveling? Is there something to be said for not having the security of a 9-5?
I mean, even in the hardest, most financially difficult period, I would definitely take this over [a] 9-5. I don’t know if any amount of money is actually worth that amount of time. I don’t live a big fancy life or anything, but I don't need to. I don't have any security, but, you know, I’m OK. I feel OK. I feel like I’ve got it under control. Sometimes I don’t feel like I’ve got it under control; you might ask me that same question tomorrow and I’d be like, “Oh my God, this is terrible.” But right now I’m feeling OK.
What is your focus on right now?
[I just built my own darkroom, and I have been contact printing and editing the work I’ve been making the past few years. I am actively seeking more commissioned work. My main focus is just making my work.]
Thank you so much for taking the time to do this. It was really great talking to you.
Lisa Elmaleh is a photographer specializing in historical processes. Her accolades include participating in Visura's artist-in-residency program, being twice awarded the Puffin Foundation Grant, and receiving the IPF Grant from the Aaron Siskind Foundation. Elmaleh’s work has been featured in The New Yorker, on CNN.com, and NationalGeographic.com. She currently teaches at the Pennsylvania College of Art and Design and the Penumbra Foundation.
This article has been edited since its original publication.