Remnants of America’s Golden Age with Leah Frances of Instagram’s @AmericanSquares
Leah Frances has just returned home to Brooklyn from Canada, where she spent time in Newfoundland and her hometown in Victoria, BC. Yes, the self-taught photographer behind the US-focused Instagram account @americansquares that boasts more than 10,000 followers, is in fact Canadian.
From a quick glance at her Instagram feed this might come as somewhat of a surprise. Her account handle does after all suggest otherwise. Yet, as the saying goes, sometimes it takes an outside perspective to help us fully appreciate the beauty of our own country past and present.
Growing up on Vancouver Island, America was a land that seemed somewhat like a mirage to Frances. A place that was within reach but, at the same time, a reality experienced through a dreamscape– the lens of Hollywood. “If I squinted I could see across the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the lights of Port Angeles, Washington from my bedroom window,” says Frances. “My dad and I watched a lot of films, classics like Mildred Pierce, Citizen Kane, and Double Indemnity. I had the impression that just across the water, everything looked like it did in the movies.”
Indeed, Frances says she always envisaged herself as part of this world; one where the magic of those old Hollywood films, all wholesome and glamorous, never die. She recalls asking for a brass bed for her eleventh birthday, convinced that it would transport her into this alternate dimension, specifically the hard-boiled detective shows she had watched on TV. However, she quickly learnt that her vision was not necessarily shared by everyone else. “I wanted a neon light to shine through my window into a sparsely furnished room… maybe a typewriter too. When it arrived, the bed was shiny and feminine and not at all as I had pictured.” Perhaps, it was this incident that unwittingly sparked a desire in Frances to take her own pictures– to create an image which captured the way in which she viewed the world. As it turned out, all Frances really needed was a camera.
Scroll through @americansquares and you’re presented with images of kitsch diners (the hallowed Twin Peaks diner makes an appearance), dusty barber shops, the neon lights of jukeboxes, and the colorful hues of artfully preserved cars. With their focus on American interiors and exteriors, Frances’ photographs transport us to another time.
There is, and will always be to some degree, a reflective screen between Frances and America. Not only through her profession, and Canadian citizenship, but through the way in which she was introduced to America. Her lens, both literally and figuratively, is informed by a childhood diet of Mid-century American cinema. Frances herself is acutely aware of this positioning– it’s something she hopes her work captures.
“I’m interested in the distance between commonly held ideas surrounding “American-ness” and the actual reality of daily life in this country. I’m an invisible immigrant, so to speak, and I arrived with preconceived notions: America as prettily packaged in Hollywood films, on TV, in books and in magazines,” she explains. “These constructed perspectives are a step removed from a lived life. For the past three years I have been taking road trips, documenting traces of American cultural identity across as much of the country as I can reach.”
Informed by the America that was presented to her “from afar, through films, television, media” before she left Canada, and the country she is experiencing first-hand through her travels as an adult, Frances’ photography captures the enduring allure of the US. Especially for anyone toying with the idea of taking an ‘American Road Trip’. Who wouldn’t want to stumble across an old-school sundae bar or strike out at a time capsuled bowling alley?
While going to grad school to learn more technical skills, such as learning how to use a darkroom “really well” are on the agenda, for now Frances is happy to work on her own projects. Roaming the outskirts of Staten Island with her Fujica GW690, is one project. Given her success at uncovering forgotten relics, and repurposing them through her distinctive lens, this will no doubt be an compelling series. Watch this space.
Us of America: When did you first pick up a camera?
Leah Frances: I feel like I’ve always had a camera in my hand. I was that friend who would always be chronicling whatever was going on. I took a photography course in high school and subsequently spent every lunch hour and many days after school developing film and printing. I eventually rigged my own darkrooms in my parents’ basement and in my boyfriend’s bathroom—he grew tired of never seeing me. I took a long break from it during university and in my twenties; photography didn’t seem like a plausible vocation where I lived. Nonetheless, I burned through piles of disposable drugstore cameras and I had a Fuji instant camera.
What drew you to photography?
My parents are both creative people. We had a lot of art on the walls, photography included, much of which was their own work. My dad had made some high-contrast black and white images during university that I always liked as a kid. Then my brother visited NYC after high school, when I was around 12. He brought me back two posters: one from the Met, Alfred Stieglitz, The Flatiron, and one from MoMA, something by Rodchenko. The Rodchenko particularly intrigued me. I think I was pleased by the way he made sense of the world through such tidy compositions. Loosely inspired by his photomontages, I began making my own photos, layering on thrift-store trinkets and found items and finally flattening it all out on a photocopier.
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’ve been privileged to scrutinize some top-notch work. 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 three years.
How would you describe your work?
Recently, on Hulu, I saw Andy Warhol and Edie Sedgwick in a 1965 episode of The Merv Griffin Show. Andy wouldn’t speak, aside from the occasional whisper to Edie, who translated for him. Can we do that? I’m terrible at putting ideas into words. I took a class at the ICP called “Believing is Seeing,” where you were supposed to learn to tell people what to think about your photography—or at least that was my takeaway. I’m not a big fan of that approach. Although I have studied cultural theory, I have friends from all walks of life so I want to produce art that could both simply match a couch or a wall color as well as have alternate levels of meaning to discover, if the viewer chooses to do so.
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.
Can you describe your process?
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.
As for a daily process, I think about photography almost all of the time and I take a camera pretty much everywhere I go.
What do you look for? What captures your eye?
Well, there’s spotting velvet Elvises (Elvi?) in the wild and unearthing trash-can jukeboxes in the back of roadside taverns—artifacts we have been told are “the most” American. I love interiors, finding the perfect diner… But, in a less material sense, I’m also crazy about color, I think partly because of my job, and light. My compositions are very rarely minimal, I like to make sense of a lot of things at once. Sometimes I will use a color palette to do that. Oh, and people accuse me of being a “car whisperer.” It’s probably true that I run across more classic cars than the average person.
Which photographers do you admire?
So many! Bruce Wrighton, Mark Steinmetz, Wim Wenders, Diane Arbus, Carrie Mae Weems, Robert Frank, Zoe Strauss, Hilla and Bernd Becher, Stephen Shore, Mary Ellen Mark, Birney Imes, Bruce Davidson, Christine Osinski, William Eggleston, Richard Billingham, Chris Steele-Perkins, Alec Soth, Nan Goldin… I am lucky to have amassed a fair photobook collection.
Visually, my biggest influence has probably been the cinema. Where I grew up was a little remote so movies captured my early imagination. To pick one thing of many, I admire the photography of Wim Wenders. And it’s fascinating to see his vision translated into a moving picture, such as Paris, Texas—a marvelous road movie! Pouring over his scouting photos for that film (they’re compiled in a book, Wim Wenders: Written in the West, Revisited) and then watching it is a real education. His work is deeply tied to a sense of place, something I hope to achieve, even a little bit, myself. One of his photos, Lounge Painting #1, Gila Bend, Arizona, 1983, is in the back of my mind when shooting many of my interior pictures.
There is a sense of nostalgia in your work, it feels almost romantic to us. Do you think this is the case?
Well, I can’t be nostalgic for what I have not experienced the first time around… but I am in a way exploring an idea of America that was presented to me from afar, through films, television, media in general, before I left Canada. So I am searching out the remnants of America's Golden Age as they exist today.
There is a bit of romance to it, you’re right. I remember the journalist, David Carr, wrote in reference to The New York Times, “Having arrived here late in my professional life, I have an immigrant’s love of the place and its daily miracle.” That concept makes a lot of sense to me, in application to my life in this country. Having emigrated here, particularly as an adult, I think I see things a little differently than, for instance, my husband who is a fourth-generation Brooklynite.
Most often I am drawn to small, quiet moments. In Vladimir Nabokov’s lecture, “The Art of Literature and Commonsense,” he speaks of “the lovely and lovable world which quietly persists.” That has become a bit of a mantra for me. In attempting to prove or disprove an idyllic notion of America’s past, I have found a certain tenderness in the present and am holding on to an optimism for the future. At any rate, if all goes bust, I’m building myself a house out of photographs within which to live.
You spend a lot of time traveling through America, what have you noticed about our country through these experiences?
How vast it is, how populated it is, how different it can be from state to state, how much more of it I need to see.
What are your favorite places you’ve visited?
The places I have not visited far outnumber the places I have visited, so picking a favorite feels somehow unfair. I do revel in the light of the South. I’ve spent the most time in Louisiana where the often mercurial weather can make for a dramatic backdrop. Although I rarely photograph people, the folks I’ve met in that state have been warm and kind. I love a good cumulus cloud and a big, blue sky. It seems obvious that I should visit the Southwest.
Any road trip advice?
Relax and let yourself get lost and then, after exploring unexpected territory, ask a local for directions. This can lead to some of the best conversations.
Try to eat or drink inside a venue you might be photographing from the outside. I find interiors tell me so much about a place, about the past and current owners and customers, even about the town and its history. Of course, I end up eating way too many fries and drinking too many cups of diner coffee. Sometimes I have to have a beer at an odd hour. But one has to order something! It’s an occupational hazard.
Learn just a few things about cars, if you don’t know anything already. I find this very helpful when caught sneaking onto private property to photograph some sleeping vehicle glimpsed from the road. “I love a good slant-six engine,” usually goes a long way.
Song of choice for your American road trip?
Recently I’ve been exploring the anthracite coal region of Pennsylvania. I’m concerned about the proposed cuts to federal aid for rail and long-distance Amtrak routes so, among other things, I wanted to look at an area that already lost much of its rail service. On these drives I’ve had the original “Freight Train,” as recorded by Elizabeth Cotten, circling through my head. Please do listen to that song, it gives me chills. For plain old fun driving I love Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way” … oh, and Jethro Tull, “My Sunday Feeling,” is great on a wide-open road.
What do you make of social media sharing platforms such as Instagram?
I love it. I started posting on Tumblr when I picked up a camera again and I immediately felt connected to other image makers. I used it for feedback, sometimes as a journal or travel diary, and I met some people in real life with whom I am still friends. I wasn’t that aware of Instagram, at first, because I thought it was only for phone photography. I didn’t want to break an unwritten code by uploading pictures taken with my digital or film cameras. But once it seemed accepted, I dove in—about a year and a half ago—and haven’t looked back. It’s compelling to me that an Instagram page could serve as a portfolio, or even as a sort of gallery space. In that vein, I have been printing my images directly from Instagram on these photobooth-type printers in Urban Outfitters. The results are only 4 by 4 inches but the saturation and quality is really quite good. I would love to have a show of my work that is made up of these miniatures.
Leah Frances' Instagram account, @americansquares can be found here.
You’ll find more of “the American road in all its recalcitrant splendour” here.