An artist, teacher and professional wedding and portrait photographer, Macdonald has perfected the merging of photography, beeswax and oil painting, known as encaustic painting. Encaustic painting dates to 800 BC, when the Greeks used it to paint their fishing boats. Egyptians later mastered the art form in their portrait painting. "It was used very classically and very artistically after that, for portrait painting," Macdonald says. "It's seen throughout the history of art. It's a very gentle and kind type of painting, a very forgiving medium—and organic."
After displaying her encaustic painting in her graduating exhibition as a California College of Art graduate student, Macdonald moved to Philadelphia and began showing her work in galleries and exhibitions. Those viewing her encaustic paintings "found the works unique, breathtaking, spiritual and highly textural," she says.
Her studio, Waxworks Photo, produces custom commissioned pieces for photographers worldwide. Photographers send their work to Macdonald, she prints the photos, and then offers them one of two different end products. One is mounted on a hardwood substrate, the other produced on Hahnemuhle paper.
In producing the hardwood-mounted product, she pours about one-eighth of an inch of wax over the photo to create an exceptionally smooth surface. She then tints the photo by applying oil paint to the surface of the wax. The Hahnemuhle paper prints, printed on an Epson printer, are brushed with wax to create a visually arresting texture that resembles linen thread. Macdonald then uses oil sticks and tints the wax to create a work that appears to be a melding of modern technology and ancient craft.
"Those pieces are extraordinary," she says of the Hahnemuhle pieces. "The wax on the paper is just absolutely breathtaking.
"It makes a photograph look like a pastel drawing. I apply the wax, and kind of tint the original image. I don't change [the photographers'] colors. If you send me a very vivid blue, I'm going to mirror that. I make your photos look good. I embellish what's given to me. I give it luminosity and depth. I can make backgrounds recede and foregrounds pop forward. It makes the ordinary extraordinary—or at least different."
In this digital age, Macdonald believes her distinctive difference is the work she does with her hands. Photographers once spent great amounts of time in the darkroom tinting and toning, but today spend much more time in PhotoShop retouching. "I like a photo that has feeling. I'd rather work with my hands than through digital technology."
Among her unique pieces is a series she calls "Female Fairy Tale." She shot 29 different women wearing the same Victorian-era wedding dress, and transformed them into encaustic works. "Female Fairy Tale" will be on exhibition in the summer of 2009 at Galerie BMG in Woodstock, NY. Her limited edition art book, titled "Relent," showcases original wax-on-wood and wax-on-paper pieces created on inkjet paper provided by Museo Paper Company. It will be sold through Waxworks (www.waxworksphoto.com) and her own website, www.leahmacdonald.com.
Her work may be seen as a kind of reaction or response to the highly advanced state of today's digital photography. "Digital photography technology has become so fail proof, so good, that anyone can shoot a great digital photograph," she says.
"In the old days, the technology of film separated the ordinary from the masters. You could see the technical difference. So I offer something that's handmade and one-of-a-kind that makes one digital photograph stand out from another...I'm offering people the opportunity to make their digital images intimate and special."
As to how she's dealing with the challenging economy, she says she keeps her overhead very low, uses her own backyard studio, gets help from her students, and has enjoyed "great support" from paper companies like Hahnemuhle and Museo.
"I have a lot of faith that my individuality and creativity will sustain me," she says. "And people who recognize that will want my products...Technology is wonderful, but we have to combine that with what we can do with our hands. We can embrace the future, but we can't forget the past."