Things Were Never Normal

On March 11th, 2021, President Biden announced “the goal of getting the nation closer to normal by July 4th.” 2 

I made these photographs during the Trump presidency and the post-Trump era, with one coast under water and  the other battling unprecedented forest fires—the climate crisis destabilizing life as we know it; with anti-abortion  vigilantes empowered, by law, in Texas; George Floyd murdered on a Minneapolis street corner; and the storming  of the Capitol by groups including far-right militants and white supremacists. As of November 22nd, 2021, 769,769  Americans had died of Covid-19.3 Much is missing from this list, yet “America is back.” 

Allentown, Pennsylvania, 2019

This exhibition highlights “third spaces”: components of an area’s social infrastructure, communal spaces outside of  home and work such as taverns, church picnics, diners, restaurants, and movie theaters—sites where we might gather,  if we could agree. Many of these venues have been devastated by the coronavirus pandemic or by extreme weather  events, both of which have become politicized. My photographs are mostly empty of people, yet pushed-back chairs  or half-finished meals on tables show that life did occur here. Pictured are scenes where things once happened, never  happened, or might still happen. Yet let us not be buried in collective amnesia: Things were never “normal.”  

The locations I chose are particular. Left behind by declining economies, they also reference an idealized American  mythology.

The locations I chose are particular. Left behind by declining economies, they also 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, for instance, 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. In his book, Landscape as Weapon:  Cultures of Exhaustion and Refusal, John Beck wrote, “What is disturbing about the tendency on the Right…to insist  upon a falsified version of the national past as a lost utopia is that this version of history is currently serving less as  a comfort and more as a model for the future.”4 

Jersey City, New Jersey, 2020

Actively using photography to explore the residue of time and human effort, I create portraits of place, mindful of the  individuals who have been there before and may be there again. Imaginary one-to-one conversations with these ghosts,  so to speak, allow me to invest in the possibility that within this divided nation, we might, one day, understand and  respect each other. I harness light to grasp at moments of joy in complicated environments — an attempt to pull myself  out of today’s prevailing us-versus-them mentality and the fear, anxiety, anger, confusion, and disappointment I have  been feeling. If half the country is engaged in backward-looking, what are they seeing? With these images—my  attempts to go to, and document,the things themselves—I hope to create an opening for deep looking and the exploration  of multiple layers of meaning, an encounter with complex histories rather than one-dimensional, familiar tropes.  

The work will be on view from Wednesday, December 15th through Saturday, December 18th, daily from 11 a.m.– 6 p.m. Temple Contemporary is housed inside the Tyler School of Art & Architecture at 2001 North 13th Street. The exhibition is free and open to the public. Please note, masks are required.

1 The title of this exhibition was born of an essay written by Ashley McNelis and Stephanie Rozman which accompanies my  photographs published in the Carnegie Museum of Art’s online journal, Storyboard, in September, 2021. 

2 “Statements and Releases.” March 11, 2021, whitehouse.gov 

3 “Coronavirus in the U.S.: Latest Map and Case Count.” The New York Times. nytimes.com/interactive/2021/us/covid-cases.html. 4 John Beck, Landscape as Weapon: Cultures of Exhaustion and Refusal (London: Reaktion Books, 2021), p. 179.

Leah Frances is a lens-based artist born in British Columbia, Canada, now based in Easton, Pennsylvania. Frances’ work has been featured in numerous print and online platforms including The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times, T Magazine, Lenscratch, the Carnegie Museum of Art’s online journal, Storyboard, and more and has been exhibited nationally and internationally. She is currently an MFA student in photography and a University Fellow at The Tyler School of Art and Architecture at Temple University in Philadelphia. You can see more of her work at leah-frances.com or on Instagram at @americansquares.

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