Leah Frances is a Canadian-born photographer currently studying for an MFA in photography at The Tyler School of Art and Architecture in Philadelphia. As a child on Vancouver Island, she could see across the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the lights of Port Angeles, Washington from her bedroom window. Growing up, this proximity to the United States along with a steady diet of mid-century American cinema instilled in her a fascination for commonly-held concepts of “Americanness.” Now living in Pennsylvania, she holds a deep interest in identity—its roots, and its perceptions within a culture and across time. Photography, as her vehicle through this exploration, allows her to focus on small, striking moments and to create images that carry a persistent, quiet optimism. She uses her lens to capture relics, icons and traces of cultural identity as a means of engaging in the distance between these ideas and the reality of daily life. Her work unearths a certain tenderness in our present by deconstructing idyllic notions of America’s past.
Frances is the eye behind American Squares, a series that exemplifies her drive to document these remnants of representation. On Instagram, American Squares has over 21,000 followers and was recently mentioned by T, The New York Times Style Magazine, in their “Five to Follow” series. Frances’ work has been published by The New York Times Magazine, Us of America Magazine, the SFMoMa blog, Format Magazine, Feature Shoot, frankie magazine, Hemispheres Magazine and more and has been exhibited nationally and internationally. She was shortlisted for the 2017 Belfast Photo Festival Photobook award and was a 2016 Finalist for Design Trust for Public Space’s Future Culture Photo Urbanism Fellowship. On weekends, you may find her in the back of a Greyhound bus, map and camera in hand. Her first photobook will be available in the fall of 2019 via AINT-BAD, An Independent Publisher of New Photographic Art.
PROJECT SPOTLIGHT: American Squares
From 2013 through 2018, Leah Frances explored America’s real and imagined images of itself through the lens of her camera. Interested in the distance between commonly held ideas surrounding “Americanness” and the actual reality of daily life in this country, Leah examined these constructed perspectives, taking road trips to document traces of American cultural identity across as much of the country as she could reach. She found that the way she chose to frame the content of her photographs: to leave out what she wanted but also to include what she wanted could create a sort of displaced experience, an alternate reality both for the photographer doing the composing and for the viewer doing the looking. The resulting image could become a portal for the viewer, allowing for a flexible experience of time.
“This woman photographs the past.” — 20 Minuten (Switzerland)
When and where did American Squares begin?
When I moved to New York I ended up working as a graphic designer, an art director, a photo editor, and as a production editor. One of my specialties is looking very closely at photography to optimize printing and color for presses and papers. I was privileged to scrutinize some top-notch work but I had not practiced my own photography since high school. I think all of this “close looking” brought my passion for photography back to my more conscious mind. I have been shooting intently again for the past five years.
American Squares looks at American cultural relics, iconography and identity. I’m also fascinated by photography as a vehicle through time and memory. I made up this story as a child—I was a Woody Allen-type kid, full of anxiety—that existence was flexible and you could avoid death simply by stepping over into a concurrently running zone (the mind of a six-year-old is too much to get into here!). Anyway, the way we choose to frame things in a photograph, to leave out what we want but also to include what we want can create a sort of displaced experience, an alternate reality, both for the photographer who is doing the composing and for the viewer who is doing the looking. The resulting image is severed from time and, in my mind, can be like a portal.
With the American Squares project I do a fair amount of research before I head out on the road, looking ahead for the type of things I want to photograph, scouring Google maps and roadside architecture sites. Or, totally opposite to that approach, I’ll pick something eight miles away and walk to it. With both methods, I’ve discovered it’s often the unexpected things I happen upon on my way to what I think I am aiming for that turn out to be the best. There is a town on the Avalon Peninsula in Newfoundland called “Come By Chance.” I love that.
Where do you see this project going?
As I've just begun graduate school, one of the things I am closely examining is where to take this project. I am interested in photographing with a large format camera to really slow down my creative process and make even more closely-examined choices. I also hope to include neon in the finished prints in some manner as much of the built environment that I photograph at one time included neon. I would like to exhibit this work, perhaps as part of my MFA thesis show.
What helps you sustain your current creative practice?
I'm currently very lucky, as photography is my main focus in school. As a daily process, I think about photography almost all of the time and I take a camera pretty much everywhere I go. Previously, my day job did involve looking at a ton of inspiring work and for that too, I am really grateful. In my day-to-day, I walk pretty much any chance I get and I don't use a smart phone. I sincerely look at the world around me. I think this close observation of life is deeply stimulating.
What’s next for you?
I am publishing my very first photobook with Aint-Bad, An Independent Publisher of New Photographic Art.
Congratulations on publishing this series as a monograph! What was your experience like making the book?
I loved making the book. The process of sequencing and editing the work was actually somewhat excruciating (!), but it also brought me to a deeper place of understanding with the work. I also really enjoyed the conversations that I had over email with the woman who wrote the introductory essay, Yani Kong. She is presently doing a PhD in Art History and I learned a ton from her. Carson and Taylor from Aint-Bad also gave me great feedback!
I thought it was important that I publish this series before I started school. Sink or swim, this is my book and it comes from the heart of a self-taught photographer. So, it reflects the real me. I am not sure I would have made the same work had I read a lot of photo theory or been exposed to a ton of highly conceptual visual-based media in an institutional setting. I may have been afraid to make work which many might find "simple."
Where can interested parties purchase this book?
The book will be available on aint-bad.com and at fine art book fairs, beginning with the New York Art Book Fair in September, 2019.
What other artists should we be keeping an eye on?
There are so many wonderful photographers out there! To name a bunch of varied photographers, from friends to inspirations, I love the work of:
#marksteinmetz + #brucewrighton