Leah Frances often draws inspiration from the idealized version of "Americaness" in pop culture in order to document what can be seen as American artifacts. Through this, the Canadian-born and Pennsylvania-based photographer provides a commentary of the country's culture and current state. In her most recent exhibition and upcoming book release, following the completion of her Master of Fine Arts degree, she takes us on a roadtrip to America's diners and serves us a slice of history as well as highlighting the ongoing division amongst American people.
Hi Leah, welcome back to Lomography Magazine! What have you been up to since your last feature with us?
Hi! Thanks so much for having me back. Since your September 2019 feature on my work, I graduated with an MFA in photography from the Tyler School of Art at Temple University in Philadelphia. Currently I have a touring solo exhibition which is showing at the Freedman Gallery in Reading, Pennsylvania from August 30th through October 6th, 2022. Last but not least, my 2nd book, Lunch Poems will be released this fall through the publisher Aliens in Residence (AIR). My studio cat, Birdie, and I have been hard at work!
You’re originally from Alert Bay, Canada. How did your fascination with ideas of “Americaness” begin?
My family moved from Alert Bay to Victoria, British Columbia, when I was quite young. Geographically, Victoria sits on an island below the 49th parallel, which forms the natural border between much of Canada and the United States. So I would say one reason was simple proximity. You can get cell phone reception from Washington State at the end of the street where I lived.
Another influence was what I have called my “steady diet of mid-century American cinema.” My dad and I watched a lot of films including classics like Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945), Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941), and Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944). Combine my location with my time spent in front of the screen and suddenly I had the impression that just across the water, everything looked like it did in the movies.
Later I discovered films like Wanda (Barbara Loden, 1970), The Last Picture Show (Peter Bogdanovich,1971), Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (Martin Scorsese, 1974), Five Easy Pieces (Bob Rafelson, 1970) and Paris, Texas (Wim Wenders, 1984). Central to my work is an interest in how we form notions about time and place, where these come from, and how they live in our mind and in the world. Watching movies is one way I sort through these questions.
Your first book American Squares has a similar style as your new book, yet a lot has happened in America between the two publication dates. How would you say your approaches and subjects have evolved since publishing the first one?
In American Squares I began to use my camera to investigate early questions I had about the rise in nostalgia I felt I was seeing around me, where it came from and what it might mean. When making and editing Lunch Poems, the influence of nostalgia on a portion of the population who seemed to want to get back to something that was felt to be better about the past, to get back to “great again” as a plan for the future, was loud and clear. America was undoubtedly divided. In order to highlight this fissure, I focused on communal settings such as taverns, church picnics, diners, restaurants, and movie theaters. As I wrote in my end note, “sites where we might gather, if we could agree.”
I photograph these spaces to the exclusion, for the most part, of the stand-alone signs and cars that populated American Squares. There is also an even more conspicuous absence of people and in the photos where people are in the same frame, they are generally not making contact with each other. Not only have we been kept apart by the pandemic and driven to despair by pandemic economies, but we are divided, to restate the obvious, by politics. I wanted to show this separateness in my photographs. Personally I find that even among friends, today I feel more isolated, more alone, than I did six years ago. We have all gone through, and are still going through, a trauma — to greater and lesser degrees.
How would you summarize your message of photographing settings such as diners?
In the flow of the book, diners reference an idealized American mythology. Persistent in popular visual culture from Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks to Gary Marshall’s Happy Days and Tony’s last meal in The Sopranos (David Chase), we’ve all absorbed the diner as a recurring motif.
Today, in a deeply polarized United States, scenes such as these are often associated with nationalism and nostalgia, mobilized for political use, and linked with characterizations of authenticity. To emphasize this division I keep referencing, the diners in Lunch Poems are mostly unpopulated spaces. One day we will hopefully understand and respect each other enough to sit down side by side.
The title of your MFA exhibition Things Were Never Normal was born of an essay written by Ashley McNelis and Stephanie Rozman — what made you decide to use this as your title? Did you have any other ideas that didn’t make the cut?
Honestly, I read it and right away I thought it was perfect. It came to the forefront somehow during the many Zoom conversations we had about the essay and my photography that accompanied it. At the time, many Americans were talking about “getting back to normal,” mostly in reference to the pandemic. In using it as a title for the exhibition, I was thinking more widely than that. What was “normal”and for whom was it considered positive? Who did it include and who was not included? Things were never “normal” (good) for every segment of the American population, that’s for sure. We can do better than normal. We must.
As for other ideas, I also thought about using “Days of Future Past” until I found out it had already been re-purposed by X-Men. It’s actually the name of the second album by the band The Moody Blues, released in 1967. I’ve long been absorbed with theories about time.
What is your favorite photo from the book? Is there a story behind it?
If we are talking about personal, and not aesthetic favorites, I am of two (possibly three!) minds. There are the photographs that I may feel “best” express the ideas I am trying to communicate in the work or the ones where I had a memorable experience while making them. Then again, I’m also humbled by the images that resonate deeply with my audience.
For instance, there is a photograph made in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania on page 79 of Lunch Poems. I wouldn’t say the light is ideal, but I hope it conveys some of the themes of the book. Symbol-wise, there is a lot going on! Right away I noticed the juxtaposition of the phone booth which has been denuded of a phone— perhaps signifying a lack of human connection— with the frame on the wall, on the right side of the photo, full of patrons from an earlier time. It’s a stark contrast. The dots of their faces mirror the shapes of the holes left by the removed wires. Then I saw the dead plant, standing in for our environmental crises; the colonial symbols on the wallpaper; the apples and apple pie on the curtains; even the umbrella holder has a scene from a crowded pub. And yet the booth itself is empty. The sriracha bottle on the table might point to the globalization of American culture, but it also reminds us of the terrible rise of anti-Asian hate crimes in recent years. Overall, this image speaks to the issue that we are no longer communicating with each other in a healthy manner (were we ever?) Much is broken. Can it be fixed?
As for a favorite that records a personal, memorable, and emotional moment in time I would point to an image on page 25, made in Danielsville, Pennsylvania. This was during the first summer of the pandemic, when many non-life sustaining businesses were closed and stay at home orders were in effect. My husband and I finally figured out that we could leave the house to drive, and to enjoy a walk in an uncongested area. We started eating dinner earlier in the evening in order to embark upon our mission before sundown. After staying in our home for so long, this simple plan felt liberating. On this evening, the light was particularly moving. I remember that behind where I took the photograph, the field was full of flowers. Of course, counter to the moment of exaltation that we were experiencing is the sadness in knowing the picnic had been canceled. The date was painted over on the sign.
What is your current set up for shooting analogue?
For the work you see on Instagram, when I shoot analogue I use a Rolleiflex 3.5F TLR, mainly with Kodak Portra 400 ISO film. I have my color negatives developed for me and then I either scan them myself on an Epson V800 or, if they need to be perfect, I have them scanned at Bleeker Digital in Manhattan. Lately I started shooting a little bit of 35 mm with a simple Minolta X-370s or a Yashica T3, both with Ilford HP5+ (mostly because it’s what my local camera shop carries.) That, I develop and print in the darkroom. I also own a Fujica GW690 medium format rangefinder. It produces beautiful negatives but I haven’t found the right use for it yet.
Concurrently, I have been working a lot in some historical methods like the platinum palladium and anthotype printing processes. For these, I combine a hybrid of analogue and digital. I scan my negatives and then print them on Pictorico transparency film as large as 17” (so far) and then I make an impression with that digital negative on the coated paper, either under a UV light or in the sun. I adore this work and I can’t wait to do a full project with it. Anthotypes use photosensitive juices from plants and berries — I have a bunch of paper coated with blackberry juice hanging up in my basement right now. What’s so intriguing about anthotypes, to me, is that they can’t be fixed, so they will fade over time. They are great for adding an extra layer to explorations of time and memory.
Can you walk us through how you approached taking photos for your new book and exhibition?
I once read, and I wish I could remember where, that there are two types of photographers: sculptors and collectors. The sculptor type starts from scratch and builds or sets something up, and then takes a picture of it. The collector type wanders and finds things. I’m definitely the collector type. Sometimes I think I bring pictures home, so to speak, that I’ve sensed might be meaningful and then I find the meaning later, and some other times I go out collecting, looking for particular images to fill in gaps in a story.
Before I went to grad school in 2019, I tended to do a lot of research in choosing the places I photographed. Sometimes I would keep a running list, other times something would come up that I just had to photograph so I would drive there ASAP. I would often request photo trips as birthday presents or for special occasions. For instance, I went to the Pittsburgh area for my wedding anniversary. I had seen a storefront on Google Street View in McKeesport, PA, called The Theatre Bar, way back in 2015 and had wanted to photograph it since. So, for our anniversary, I asked my husband if we could go there.
During and after grad school my approach became somewhat stifled as I had filled my brain with so many readings, I almost felt paralyzed by the thought of simply making a picture without referring in my mind to academic jargon. A lot of these readings were fantastic, and in hindsight, they’ve influenced my work for the better, but there was certainly a time of struggle for me that coincided with the making of the book and exhibition.
One immensely helpful tool, that I discovered on my own outside of school, was Photo Work: Forty Photographers on Process and Practice edited by Sasha Wolf. It basically goes through the artistic processes of 40 different photographers. It helped me to remember that there is no “right” way to approach photography. In the book, Siân Davey says, “the thinking mind can stop us from seeing and responding to unconscious material out there." Robert Adams advises, “Thinking up a project and then making pictures that fit does not, in my experience, usually result in the best pictures.”
Eventually, I worked my way to photographing more intuitively. I would say it was in the editing process that I found the narrative. What I had been thinking about unconsciously, or consciously, during my process: the global COVID-19 pandemic, the climate emergency, the race war in America, the general divide in this country... it all bubbled up to the surface.
Do you plan on continuing to shoot American artifacts from an archaeological point of view?
I probably already have enough photographs for a third book and I think it would be fun to make a trilogy that could play nicely together. I was actually planning that in designing this second book, it would complement and continue on from the first one. Due to COVID-related disruptions in printing and shipping, the release of this second book was delayed by over a year, so I just kept on making photographs after it was originally sent to press in July, 2021. For me, I think it takes having a finished book in hand, or at least a box of prints (something that doesn't just live on a computer screen) for a body of work to really feel closer to finished.
That said, I have been exploring several other projects, aside from the historical processes that I already mentioned. I’ve been working closer to my home, making much more personal work.
Do you have anything else that you’d like to share about your photography?
More than anything I want to send a big thank you to everyone who has supported my photography over the years. It means a great deal to me.
If you'd like to see more of Leah Frances' work make sure to sign up for presale information on Lunch Poems and look out for her touring solo exhibition. You can also follow her on Instagram and check out her website.