Leah Frances is the eye behind American Squares, an Instagram photography project that documents American cultural relics, iconography, and identity. American Squares has over 18,000 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.
As a Canadian-born photographer raised in Vancouver Island, British Columbia, her early 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, Frances carries 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. An invisible immigrant, 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. Frances unearths a certain tenderness in our present by deconstructing idyllic notions of America’s past.
We are thrilled you took our brand new Diana Instant Square out for a spin. Have you had any experience with the regular Diana F+ before?
Thanks for lending it to me! I had no experience with the regular Diana F+.
You shoot a lot of 120 film, so the square format is something you’re used to. What do you like about that format in particular?
In high school, I first learned photography using a Yashica-D medium format film TLR camera so I became used to seeing the world in squares. I find composing in other ratios quite difficult. I love the square format because it forces me to think about the entire frame — the top and the bottom as well as the horizontal aspect. I’ve found this slows me down and as a result, I often take only one photograph of any subject I am trying to capture. Also, I crop very little, or not at all, after the fact because I’ve spent time making the picture as I’ve intended, in camera.
The Diana camera has its very own aesthetic, with its plastic lens it produces very soft images and vignettes. How do you like the selection of shots you shared with us?
The softness and the vignettes took some getting used to, especially as I was also shooting with a Rolleiflex across the same days, which produces pictures with a very different look. However, after a few little moments of frustration ;-) I quickly embraced these quirks. I intentionally tried the camera in California because I imagined the results would have a dreamy aspect to them and I thought the quality of light there might be well-suited to the Diana aesthetic. I am happy with the results, I completed a whole little project!
You captured a lot of old vintage cars in this series – was that a conscious decision for using a reinvention of a 1960s camera?
Yes, you guessed correctly. I often photograph this era; my usual film camera was in production from 1958 to 1960. For the Diana Instant Square, I wanted to continue this and tried to find cars of around the same age (approximately!). I also thought, with the slight unpredictability of the camera and my trying it for the first time, it might be nice to have a constant: so I chose to photograph vintage cars and a few signs that coupled well with American 1950s and 60s car culture.
The Diana Instant Square with all its settings and features requires some trial and error when getting used to it. Do you have any tips for beginners?
I personally had the best luck in full sun. I also found that the camera reproduces saturation very well, so photographing brightly-colored subjects worked nicely.
Can you pick three adjectives to describe the Diana Instant Square?
Dreamy, surprising, vintage.
What are you working on currently? Any new projects coming up?
I’m working on a Pennsylvania-based project because I recently moved there from Brooklyn, NY and I find that using my camera lens is a good way to get to know my new surroundings. I very much hope to add these photos to my current catalog and produce a book and a show in the next year. These are big dreams!