Across the country from our other featured photographer and with many more years experience, Leanne Staples is an urban photographer based in New York City.
Several times a week she travels into Manhattan to document the life in the landscapes of the city. Like our other guest this month, Leanne approaches her shooting in an intuitive manner. She walks the streets with no preconceived notions or plans finding her subjects based upon what she feels in the moment.
Leanne sees herself as an observer and rarely engages with her subjects. Instead she blends in and becomes part of the scene capturing her images as she goes.
She has a natural sense for composition which is evident in her work. In fact, Leanne regularly teaches a live interactive workshop on composition online.
Her work is as much about the architecture and urban landscapes of the city as it is about people. Trained in video production Leanne’s images show a strong influence from artists like Hitchcock, Orson Welles and Carol Reed.
I learned a lot from our discussion and hope you will too. So have a listen to our guest Leanne Staples.
I’d like to start by asking you a little bit about yourself, about you background in photography and the Arts in general and what brings you to where you are today.
Oh wow! That’s a great question. I was given a camera when I was 12 by my father. At that point in life I think that – I probably wasn’t even speaking English, my first language, all that good at it. When you’re a teen, pre-teen, the fact that he gave me a camera was something incredible because it gave me a way to communicate, express myself.
It turned out that more than forty years later, my big passion in life – I never had any formal training in photography at all. In fact, I thought that I was going to become a director of photography or cinematographer in film because film had been my real love at the time. I don’t know. Somehow, I had to say I think probably the biggest influence was when photography went online and I got on Flickr and then all of a sudden had an audience.
In the past, photography had always been this thing that I did for myself and sometimes I show it to friends. But, once you get a bigger audience, it kind of changes everything.
You mentioned being a filmmaker. Did you work in film for a while?
No! I wish! I had studied film. I studied video production back in the days when they had quarter packs and two people actually had to run a camera. I studied 16-milimetre film production with Arnold Eagle, who is a documentary film-maker. Many years later, I only figured out that he was part of the New York league of the top photographers and didn’t even know he was a photographer. But, I tried it out and photography is a tricky business to get into as well. I played around with it a bit. I still have a love of cinema. Who knows? Maybe one day I’ll actually make a film. But, my primary focus has been photography for quite a while now.
How has your study of film influenced your photography?
Well, my favorite films were really like the French and Italian and the old Hollywood films. So, a lot of that kind of noir feeling that comes out in my photographs is highly influenced by that. Like I said, I didn’t actually study photography. Not only did I not study how to use cameras and to do all that stuff, I also didn’t study photographers. It was really kind of after-the-fact that I discovered Cartier-Bresson and Helen Levitt and all these photographers. So, my influence had always been the images that I had seen in film, in cinema.
One of the galleries on your website is Noir City. Actually it’s one of my favorites. So, I can really see that influence.
I should mention Hitchcock as well because I think that there is a minimalism in Hitchcock where he can focuses in on an object and there’s this kind of emotion coming out of something, which really is almost like a still photo. He will just sit there and have the camera, even though it’s film and it’s moving, you’re seeing a still object there. So, absolutely! I’m totally inspired by film, but this is kind of my translation many years later as well.
What other types of photography do you do besides street?
It’s funny. I don’t want to compare myself to people like say, Helen Levitt and Vivian Maier but, when I started doing street photography, I didn’t know that that is what it was. I was labeled the street photographer without really knowing that that is really what is was. I’m an urban photographer and an urban person. So, in the beginning it was really about shooting architecture and the urban environment.
Then I stumbled upon street photography when I lost my patience for people walking into the shot. Within my so-called street photography, there’s always an urban setting. But, aside from that I always do urban landscapes and urban landscapes to me – I don’t know. I’m not a country girl and I would go nuts and I probably wouldn’t even take photos if I was in the country. I love mountainous landscapes and I love oceans. But, I don’t love photographing them at all. It’s really a combination of urban photos with or without people.
I was in New York recently and arrived early to allow time to do some street photography. I was overwhelmed. I didn’t even know which way to turn. There was so much there.
You know, that’s the interesting – New York, there’s always something in New York. Part of it is luck in being at the right place at the right time. I think that as big as New York is, it’s such a fast-paced city and there’s so much going on. There is this temptation to keep running around to try to catch something. But, I found that the best thing is actually to find a place and stake yourself out in it and wait for it all to come to you.
I noticed in a lot of your photos it seemed like you’re in one place. It looks like you found a very interesting background and just waited there to see what happens. Is that true?
Absolutely! It’s funny because someone commented the other day about my style of street photography and said that a lot of street photographers, they go and they get characters, they get people. The majority of the shot is the person because they’re odd. For me, it’s really about background first and foremost. There has to be repetitive patterns or shadows or a very cool sign or some kind of decay or whatever it is. I stake that out and then I wait for the people to come into the photographs.
You have an entire gallery called Street Lines and you had a very interesting story about how that came about. I wonder if you could share that with us.
I always think of myself as a bit of an outsider. When I see a lot of photographers, they typically do one thing and one thing really well. I do a lot of things. I’m all over the chart there. When I try to put together a gallery or a portfolio with my work, I’m often kind of stuck when I look at it and say well these are just a bunch of random photos. How can I put some kind of continuity together there? The lines, which are typically horizontal lines and occasionally they are vertical lines, those are that kind of repetitive pattern in something that I’m always looking for. One day I just woke up and said, wow! I definitely have a gallery of lines here and I think that that would make a good gallery.
Do you have a plan when you go out to shoot or do you just go?
I just shoot. There’s a bunch of things. First of all it’s my mood. One of the things I things that’s always tricky is – A photographer, just like an athlete, has to warm up. Sometimes it takes me a little while when I go out in the day to figure out what I want to shoot. I just wander around and kind of get into the mood. The mood is often not just my mood, but it’s like the weather, what’s going on outside.
Sometimes I can’t find any street photos to shoot and I end up shooting in a more urban landscapes. So, when it comes to street photography I don’t really have – it’s just like you’re going out there and capturing something and maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t, or maybe you found the right place but people aren’t coming in. On the other hand, when it comes to urban landscapes, I do have some things that I do. I have a series of photographs called, the alternate landscapes.
My Tryst Noir series was really after the fact and that was just kind of the way that I processed. When it comes to street, you just never know what you’re going to catch. So, for me it’s difficult to come up with a continuity in it. Maybe there’s one there and I just come and recognize it when it came to horizontal lines.
What inspires you?
First of all, I have to say I’m really an intuitive photographer. So, when it comes to the projects side of things and when it comes to what inspires me, it’s more the feeling than anything. I can tell you that sometimes I think I kind of have a split brain or something because my intuitive part of me doesn’t always get very well translated into the intellect and my ability to explain that even for myself, which is something that I take the time now on occasion to write about photography in the hopes that I can even decipher in myself. But, I have to say I think I have a muse. When that muse is around, I just like sniffing it out, following it and being taken. It’s feeling it and being there at the right place and the time and the moment. Again it’s really about me kind of slowing down enough to stay in one place and wait for that shot to come rather than running around trying to shoot a million shots. I hope I’m making sense there.
How much do you engage with your subjects?
I don’t typically talk to people too much. On the street when I’m taking photos, I’m kind of shying away. I think I’m really trying to be as invisible as possible. I know that people will say that – there are people like Bruce Gilman and I saw him speak live. He’s just this kind of totally in-your-face guy. He just begs for a response from people whereas I know that there’s no such thing as objective. It’s always a point of view. I prefer when I’m doing street photography that my presence and the camera are not getting a response from the person. They’re not aware that I’m there. I try to be as invisible as possible when shooting.
When you work, do you tend to raise the camera to your eye, or you’re shooting from the hip?
I shoot with a DSLR. Typically, I’ve got my eye to the viewfinder. I did have a little Ricoh X2 camera as well, with which I shoot from view from the display in the back. Occasionally, I will just for fun shoot from the hip to see how that works out. Maybe when I’m on the subway I’ll do that because you’re in close proximity to people. Now, I’m also shooting with medium format camera, film camera, a TLR. That’s kind of cool because you’re actually looking down and people don’t always know necessarily that you’re shooting them, even though they might be walking right into your camera. But, the hip shot thing I haven’t really done much of. I typically have the camera right up to my eye.
Speaking of equipment, we don’t talk a lot about equipment here. But, everybody is interested in what each other uses. So, what are you using?
I have a lot of cameras. It’s kind of funny because my camera that I used the majority of the time is a Nikon D300 and I have Nikon take-over with electrical tape. So, I think the whole tech talk, what kind of camera you use. To me, it’s really a boring one. My story has always been do you ask a carpenter what kind of hammer they use because it’s just a tool. You wouldn’t ask a painter what kind of brushes do you use. But, there is this kind of obsession with what kind of camera do you use. I started out with a Nikkormat when I was young, which my father gave to me, a film camera. I’ve been using Nikons. I still do have a D50. It was my first DSLR. I have two Ricoh digital cameras. I have a Holga and this Ricoh Flex 7 medium format camera and a Nikon FE and the list goes on and on. So, for me, it just depends. In that respect, I probably brought up a question you were already thinking about. But, I shoot film and digital and I don’t think that one has to make a choice. Again, back to the painter thing, you use a different brush or a different kind of technique and I think cameras themselves are just tools in that respect, that you use knowing what kind of effect you’re going to get from using them.
It’s always tricky. Camera equipment, especially DSRs are so darn heavy. It seems I always go out with the best of intentions carrying a couple lenses with me and thinking, oh well maybe I should bring my wide angle. I have an 18 to 35. I’ll bring it with me. But, ironically, I’ll probably have the 50 on the entire time and I’ll never switch it because I’m just too darn lazy. I love prime lenses. I plan on getting some more at some point in time. I tend to go with the prime lenses.
Lately, I’ve just been going with a prime lens or a camera with a fixed lens. I find it liberating because I don’t have to worry about whether I’ve got the right one on. If it doesn’t work for the shot then it doesn’t, then shoot something else.
Exactly! I find they put too many options on digital cameras, probably mostly because they’re trying to figure out ways to up the price of things.
But, the bottom line is when you shoot with a film camera, you’ve really got the ISO, you have you shutter speed and you have your aperture, you have the ability to focus. But, all of a sudden you have a digital camera your focusing is totally affecting which focus format you have. It’s totally affecting – well, whatever. That’s a long story. I just think that they make it very confusing to kind of really use and understand all of the aspects of a digital camera.
You spend a lot of time working in the city and I was wondering if there anything that makes you uncomfortable?
No! If I hadn’t had enough sleep the night before or I’m in a bad mood and trying to work against a bad mood or something, I don’t usually feel uncomfortable at all when I’m out shooting. The closest thing I can say is that at one point when I was shooting the Occupy Wall Street there was a sit-in in front of the Federal court. I was on the periphery. I stepped one foot off the curb and a police officer in riot gear told me three times that I had to get back on the sidewalk. There actually wasn’t any place for me to put two feet on the sidewalk. But, that’s at an event and when you shoot events sometimes stuff like that happens. When I’m just running around the city as solo street photographer doing my thing, I can’t even recall a time when I felt uncomfortable.
What types of subjects do you prefer to shoot?
It’s certain kinds of light and if there’s little speckles of light coming through from something or there’s really nice shadows, or there’s some kind of repetitive patterns. A lot of times in New York City stores have these hold-down garage doors that block there store off and there are these horizontal lines, which are pretty much predominant in that gallery that we talked about, Street Lines. I call it smoke, but it’s really steam. We have these vents of steam in the city, big clouds of rain and umbrellas. There are all things that really provoke a mood or some kind of emotion.
One thing I like about your work is you do a lot in color. The colors always seem very rich and obviously you have a purpose to it. One photo that jumped out at me that I like, is one called, Lower East-side People’s Federal. It could be a black and white image except for all of the green. I wonder if you could talk about that.
It’s funny. In reality, probably that 90% of my work, especially my street photography, is in black and white. But, there are certain things that, when color is appropriate I go with color. I also don’t have a very good appreciation for color at all, I have to say. I think I see and work in black and white in a way. When I do color, I tend to either over saturate it, so it’s really over the top or I tend to de-saturate it. In this particular shot, the green in the photo was – I didn’t want to detract too much from the actual people in the photo. But, I found that just having that green was fine.
Let’s take a look at a photo speaking of black and white. This one is called the N-Train. I wonder if you could talk about this one a little bit.
There are a couple other things that I could add to the laundry list of things that I really like and capturing motion is one of them. I just really like seeing this one lonely guy standing there and the train passing him by. I don’t know what to say about it. It’s one for me that I’ve always liked and then I think that – I don’t know.
You were able to capture some motion blur here and it works really well. Did you do that on purpose or, or was it a happy accident?
Well, I guess in that respect it was a happy accident. The thing about shooting in the New York City subway is that the lighting is so incredibly bad. You’re out and it’s a bright sunny day and you’re shooting at 100 ISO and you come into the subway and you’re lucky at 800, if you can really have enough light there. I was shooting him primarily and the fact that I got that motion blur was a happy accident.
In terms of black and white, do you do anything special in converting to black and white?
Well, I’ve been developing techniques for quite a while now to do that. It’s funny because I tend to do a lot of my black and white in software now.
So, the first thing I’ll do to a photograph is – I have this problem in that I can’t see anything straight anymore. I often have to shift it a little bit so my lines are straight. The other thing that I do is touch up the clarity a little bit or the highlights a little bit and then I import it directly into Nik Silver Effects and take it from there. I do think one of the things that people have told me a lot and I guess it was always there in my mind that when I started shooting digital I really wanted my black and white photos to look like film.
I know when they process black and white in digital photos, they are kind of looking to achieve that. We live in a color world now. All of the photos are in color. You don’t see advertisements in black and white. You don’t anything in black and white anymore. Black and white always harks back to the days of film. Of course, street photography in and of itself is in some ways far more suited to black and white because of its history. That’s my take anyways.
Speaking of trains, you have another train photo with some motion blur that I think is really cool. It’s called Train Leaving the Station.
When you’re outdoors and you’re in the daylight I think that capturing motion blur in a way is somewhat easier. Again, here we are. It’s in the New York City subway. Light is just terrible. I never know until I get home if that shot’s going to work or how it’s going to look. But, it kind of worked here. Do I think that either of these photos is like the ultimate? I’m not going to quit doing them now because I think there’s stuff that could have been better even about this one. But, I know that this is a photo that people always rave to me about.
Another photo I really like called Hat’s Off. Can you tell us more about this one?
I guess some of the times it’s luck, or maybe it’s that you make your luck. This was on Coney Island and people were leaving the beach and they were going to the beach and I just like that the right-hand side of the photo you just see the back of the people and they’re moving off in one direction.
Then on the left-hand side you see the mother and father I guess and there is a kid behind them and they’re looking in the opposite direction and you see their faces. For some reason, this guy had his hand on his hat, lifted it off his head slightly. I had no idea what they were looking at. But, to me it’s that one side of the shot is going in one direction and the one side is going in the other and you got the opposition there.
I know that I took a bunch of photos then. So, my hunch is that I was just standing there waiting. I think that I might had been lucky to capture exactly that moment as I could have been looking one way or the other and it was just Voile! It just happened.
You were talking earlier about making your own luck. So, how do you feel about that? Do you make your own luck? Or, does it just happen?
I think you do make your own luck. Again, like I said, part of it for me is seeking out the right lighting and the right background and waiting for the shot. I think that the more you run around the less likely you are to be in the right place at the right time. You miss shots that way. I think Coney Island, in and of itself, has so many interesting people there all the time and there’s always action. So, it was like the backdrop, the horizontal line has become like a trademark for me. You absolutely do make your luck
Let’s look at one you shot t Coney Island titled, “Three at Coney.” It’s a photo of the three kids at a railing looking over the water.
Once again it’s like a shot where first of all it’s just bizarre because there’s just no one on the beach and it looks as if down by the water there’s a couple of people back there. You see these three kids and here you have the opposition again: you have three and two of them are standing up on the bar and the one is down without even seeing their faces. For me, the kids are just excited to be at the beach or something. You can only imagine where they live. Kids going to the beach – is like, “yeah, we’re free”. You just want to know what’s going on in their minds.
That’s exactly the feeling I got from it. Like you say, without even seeing their faces, you can tell they’re excited.
What are they looking at? Because the beach – all that they’re looking at is the water. They’re looking at the sand. They’re looking at the water. There’s no one there. It’s not as if they’re looking at some other kids playing or whatever. They’re just looking out.
I think it’s just a very interesting composition too. That’s one thing I see in your work. You have such a good eye for composition.
This is another thing that I’ve been trying to decipher for a long time. When my eye is up there at the viewfinder, I’m not conscious. I’m not saying, ok how am I going to compose this? I’m not trying to do something specific at all. But, somehow over the years my ability to compose – I don’t know. Composition is something that I think that I do really well and I don’t want to say that sounding as if I’m kind of bragging about myself. In fact, I would tend to say that other people bring that out more than I do myself. But, it’s something I feel. I’m never quite certain until I get it on the computer. It’s no different from shooting film because you’re never quite certain until that film is developed that you know that you actually got what you felt and you’re conveying the thing you felt when you took that shot. To me that that’s what composition is. You see a scene and you would have a feeling for it and when you have the finished photo, you want it to convey that thing that pulled you into it.
But, for example, when you take a shot like this did you just know at the time you clicked the shutter that you got it?
I’m totally not conscious when I take photos. I’m often in another place and I see it and I react to it and I shoot it. I really don’t know until I get it on the computer that it worked.
Like I said, I really consider myself to be an intuitive photographer. I have to turn off the brain chatter to be able to get good shots. If I’m thinking, oh this is how I’m going to set this shot up. This is what it’s going to be then I’m missing everything. In a way I guess you could call it a kind of Zen, in which you are just so in that moment that you are not conscious of it. You are there and you shoot it and then you see it later and you go, oh man I really didn’t get that or wow! It works.
Is there a trick to doing this? Is this something you do totally subconsciously? Is there anything you could share for the rest of us who can’t seem to be able to do that?
Well, I think that part of it is just about training your brain. It’s just about training yourself. There’s a combination of things and I think first when I teach my students, the things I’d start with are these so-called rules of photography. At some point when you understand the rules of enough, you throw it out. It doesn’t matter anymore. The brain is something that you can train to start thinking in a certain way.
I never knew what the rules of photography were until after I started shooting for 40 years. Once I started looking at them I went, oh yeah, I’ve been doing that for a while. I think that if you really study, for instance, art or you look at other photos.
The thing that I really do say to people is that you should, even once you can’t know the rules, you should throw them out. You should always experiment. You should not be afraid to make mistakes. You should not want to copy other photographers. Even a guitar player has to learn how to do smoke on the water before they can figure out how to do their own work. At some point, you just find the thing that really resonates with you and when you’re doing the thing that really resonates with you, then people just go, wow! So, that’s like the really quick, abbreviated version of it. But, you just have to teach yourself how to see things in frames.
Let me ask you about one more photo before we go It’s from your gallery on your website Noir City called Fifth Avenue Sun. No people in it. But, I just love the image.
There’s a few things: one, I should say when you talk about how much you like my photos, I can tell you something and I’ll tell you. I tend to really like a photo for about 15 minutes and then it’s onto what am I going to do now. So, I’m never a 100% satisfied with any of my photos. Usually, they don’t last very long for me.
Fifth Avenue Sun was taken only six months ago. But, it’s a photo that for me I had no idea if I was getting the photo at the time. Because when you shoot straight into the sun, I don’t know if you’ve ever done that, I was blinded. I could not see anything. I think I took six or eight photos of shooting straight into the sun. Of course, architecturally, there was this beautiful building and the sunburst coming out of it. When I got home and I looked at the photos I went, ok, I got that one. I tend to go in the opposite direction and go for something a little bit darker, especially with my smoke and steam photos. To me, I dare to call it a classic.
And you only have a few seconds to capture the sun in that position.
Exactly! I literally couldn’t see for I don’t know how long after I took that photo.