Photographer Interview: Elia Alba

Photographer Elia AlbaElia Alba received her BA from Hunter College in 1994 where she graduated magna cum laude and completed the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program in 2001.

Alba is a multi-media artist whose work has been exhibited and screened at various national and international institutions, including Yerba Buena Center for the Arts; El Museo del Barrio; The RISD Museum; Valencia Institute of Modern Art, IVAM, Spain; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; ARCO, Madrid; Jersey City Museum; Science Museum, London; and ITAU Cultural Institute, Sao Paolo, Brazil, and most recently the 10th Havana Biennial.

Her awards have included the Whitney Museum Van Lier Foundation Fellowship 2001; Studio Museum in Harlem, Artist in Residence Fellowship Program (1998-1999), New York Foundation for the Arts Grant (Crafts 2002 and Photography 2008); Pollack-Krasner Foundation Grant (2002) and Joan Mitchell Foundation Grant (2002 and 2008). Her work has been reviewed in the Art Nexus, The Guardian, Time Out, FlashArt, Tema Celeste and The New York Times. She lives and works in Queens, New York.

EA: Where are you from?
EA: I was born and raised in New York City but my family is from the Dominican Republic.

D&B: What kind of photography do you shoot and how did you get started – any
“formal” training?

EA: I really don’t have any formal training. I started combining sewing with
photography and ultimately created photo-based masks.

These masks, created through a photo-transfer process from an actual photograph I have taken on fabric, are worn not by the bearer of the masked image but by other individuals. These in turn are re-photographed with wigs and other props and re-contextualized in different environments and settings.

My photographs are a combination of still life, documentation, performance and portraiture.

Animalia, © Elia Alba

D&B: What cameras or techniques do you use?

EA: I use the Bronica SQ. A medium format film camera. I prefer film over digital.

D&B: Who are your mentors (in photography)?
EA: Manuel Acevedo, my husband, who is an excellent photographer.

D&B: Have you experienced any setbacks or different treatment along your photography career that you would attribute to being a woman and/or photographer of color? (this question is optional)
EA: Not really.

D&B: When did you realize you could have a career in photography? Describe your journey towards becoming a working photographer.

EA: Back in the late ’80s I started photographing my friend’s small dance company which lead to photographing other smaller dance and opera companies throughout New York City.

While I enjoyed shooting these environments, I really didn’t feel I was creating in the same way. The actors, stage sets, etc., really was all there for me. I considered it more of a documentation. A few years after I started doing sculpture.

When I would take pictures of the sculpture, especially the close-ups, friends really liked those images as actual photographs and persuaded me to re-consider photography as medium. At around the same time I was collecting and photographing peoples faces and began experimenting with blending these 2 mediums which ultimately came together as photographic objects.

At first the objects were stand alone, but then became props for photographs. I feel like I have somewhat returned to my theater roots, where my current photographs not only merge photography and sculpture but “form” sets, use props to create alternative realities.

Water Tree, © Elia Alba

D&B: What do you hope to achieve with your photography?EA: My current images deal a lot with blending and merging of peoples; creating new ones that defy classification. I hope to continue creating a cohesive body of work that continues to question and challenge our preconceived notions of people and place.

DB&: What’s your dream photography project?EA: Traveling to Ireland and Scotland to create a mask project on faeries. In this case these faeries will resemble more faeries of non-Western folklore than
typical Irish faeries. Well, this is more of a plan, the dream would be to work
for a couple of months straight throughout the UK.

What’s the biggest (life) lesson you’ve learned through photography?EA: My work deals alot with identities in flux and how identities are intertwined. It never ceases to amaze me how 2 people from different ends can have so many similarities. Its a constant reminder of how we all come from the same place.

Dodge & Burn is a blog dedicated to documenting a more inclusive history of photography and supporting the work of photographers of color including profiles and photographer interviews.

This blog is published by visual artist and writer, Qiana Mestrich. For regular updates on diversity in photography history, follow Qiana on Twitter @mestrich, Like the Dodge & Burn Blog page on Facebook or subscribe to Dodge & Burn by email.

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