Journal of a photographer



July 2016, West Virginia

For our Fall 2016 issue, Catherine Venable Moore investigation the Hawk’s Nest tunnel disaster of 1931, which buried over 700 workers anonymously, many of them African-Americans; this event is still considered the worst industrial disaster in US history. In our pages, the story has been made all the more impactful by the wet plate collodion photographs commissioned by Lisa Elmaleh. Here, Elmaleh shares additional photographs from her trip to West Virginia and her trip diary.


5 A M I wake up at home in Hampshire County and start driving in the morning calm and quiet. I’m heading to Fayette County in my faded red pickup with a noisy, broken exhaust. It’s four hours to get to Hawk’s Nest Tunnel, a stack of tapes in my passenger seat, and lots of coffee and cigarettes. My first day is spotting, finding the points on the map, looking for the light.

12 PM Drive through Fayette County. The heat is immense, the humidity thick. Signs of flood damage, mud along roadsides, furniture in ditches, tall water pipes on houses. The words TOTAL LOSS spray painted on a house makes me cry. The devastation stays with me as I travel the road.

3 PM I’m heading towards Sunoco station at Gauley Bridge. My air conditioner stopped working a few years ago and I have never repaired it. Today is the day I regret not having fixed it. My seat is soaked in sweat and I have already drunk more than a gallon of water. I buy a Coke and strike up a conversation with a nice man named Larry. Larry says the thermometer on his front porch read 106 when he left. I ask him if he knows where Vanetta is. “Vanette! He exclaims, “Why the hell would you want to know where it is?” I explain. “My parents were born and raised in Vanetta,” he says. “I’ll be happy to take you there. Tomorrow.


5 A M I wake up in Charleston, put on the stained clothes I wear for pulling, my muddy boots, and sneak down the stairs, trying not to wake my hosts. When I walk into the kitchen, I realize that they’ve already made breakfast for me – eggs, bacon, toast, coffee – a morning kindness I don’t know how to thank them for. We sit down at the table before dawn, discussing my itinerary for the day.

6 A M The road to Fayette County. In the rising light, I pass the landscape along the 60, its harsh poetry: vast silhouettes of mountains, gas stations drenched in fluorescent light, the warm glow of the town of Alloy, the mine complex of alloy covered with kudzu, the Kanawha River.

7 A M First stop: Hawk’s Nest lookout. Dawn has no shadows. A thin mist hangs over the New River as I pull out my camera, an 8×10 wood model with red bellows from the 1940s. I set up my darkroom and its chemicals and as I coated my first patch, the fog has lifted, but the light is still hazy, almost iridescent.

9 A M One hour outside of Whipporwill, on the site of Hawk’s Nest cemetery. I set up my camera, large among the simple wooden crosses marking the graves. I installed my darkroom in the back of my truck under a shade tree. Like crows, my chemical trays are balanced on rocks outside the cemetery gate. I spend the whole morning here. The light is speckled and filtering through the trees, lending to this moment a tenderness betrayed by the loud noise of the highway above the head, the putrid orange flowing like water in the nearby stream. Two FEMA employees stop for a few minutes, say they are sightseeing but are not talkative. Larry had some harsh words about FEMA, and I watch their car as they pull away, wondering what their days are like.

2 PM I stop at U-SAVE Travel Plaza near Whippoorwill to buy a packet of tuna and crackers, a Coke. I wrap breakfast sitting in the shade of the roof of the gas station. Then I fill up with gasoline, check the oil in my car, the silver levels in my darkroom.

4 PM Gauley Bridge Power Station. I park my truck in the parking lot above the station; the words of the sign, NO UNAUTHORIZED VEHICLES BEYOND THIS POINT, stop me. My darkroom is part of my truck: this means that I will not be able to approach it near the place where I want to photograph. I settled in the parking lot and then I go down, down, down to the river, my heavy camera on its tripod and gripping my body. I feel vulnerable: no one knows I’m here; the power station gushes out, a strange mechanical noise on the flow of the river; water flows regularly; I am well below the flood line. I crawl over the flood debris: tires, branches, whole tree trunks, a propane tank. I set up my camera, find the image on the frost. I focus, wrap the camera in my dark cloth, then speed up the slope. It takes me hours to get back to my truck. I take out a glass plate, pour the collodion on the surface, I deposit it in the silver bath. Three minutes of waiting, listening to the river below. I load the plate in my support, go down the slope. I notice dark clouds coming, I hear thunder in the distance. I race against the impending storm, the clouds above me darken, worrying about what might happen here in the event of a flash flood. Thirty seconds of in camera exposure, and back up the hill, back to my truck. I slip into my little cardboard darkroom, draping the light-tight fabric around me, and pouring developer on my plate, making sure I see shadow details appear on the negatives, the little red lamp. on my head revealing the exhibit. I wash the plate in water, put it outside to wash it, and smear another plate with collodion for the next photo. I drop him in the bath for another three minutes of waiting.

6.30am PM Larry meets me at the power station. The day approaches sunset. We are about a forty-five minute walk down the train tracks where Vanetta and Gamoca were located. We pass a rattlesnake coiled under the railroad tracks, surprising Larry. Few signs of life in these ghost towns; I’ll take the snake as a good omen. We arrive at Gamoca and it shows where the last house was. It has long been overgrown; tall trees and thick brush block our view of where the foundation might be. We are walking backwards. I take a photo on the slopes. Larry tells me about his children. The mountains and trees all around us change from lighting to silhouette as the sky turns a deep blue above us.

Enjoy this story? Discover more from Lisa Elmalehfalcons Embed photographs in Catherine Venable Moore’sBook of the Dead: In Fayette County, West Virginia, expand disaster document, ”Originally published in the fall 2016 issue.


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