Leslie Frank, A Modern Flaneur

March 2020 marks the start of quarantine. For me, it meant that I couldn’t go to work, I couldn’t see my friends or walk through the city without a heightened sense of fear. It felt like time came to a standstill and all I had was Instagram and the media. One month later, a coworker of mine started sharing these wonderful vignettes of scenery and people in her neighborhood. While the media could only cope with showing the horrors of the pandemic, Leslie Frank started to share what I considered the warmth we needed in our lives. I was entranced by the change of content. Leslie made the world feel more humane. When the media made me fear going out in public, Leslie made me yearn for the outdoors. While the media shared moments of horror with updates from the White House, Leslie’s series Meanwhile in Pasadena… captured scenes straight out of a movie like quinceaneras getting photographed in City Hall. It felt like a sarcastic commentary, “The world is broken, but I still need to tell the world I’m 15!”

Meanwhile in Pasadena…
July 15, 2020 7:57 PM
Photo: Leslie J Frank

I’ve known and worked with Leslie for a couple of years and had the pleasure of talking about her art practice with her. Her Instagram, mistywatercolormemories, is a collection of snapshots that feel like distant memories. I’ll see people enjoying life or sharing their vulnerability. When you’re on transit you feel connected to the people you ride with, and it’s a wonder that I can still feel that connection through Leslie’s photographs. As Leslie describes it on her website, “I am a Kleptomaniac of public and private moments. I steal images of people and objects in public environments and frame these moments for detailed observation with the addition of my own poetic essence.”

The best way I would describe her practice is as a modern day flaneur, a person who strolls and wanders. In 19th century France in the age of reconstruction and development, the Frenchman would stroll through the new Boulevards as an act of exhibition. Meandering through the city for the purpose of observing others and to be observed, the flaneur would then go to their studio and create literature or art based on observations they had made that same day, inspired by these fleeting moments of chance. The intention was not to capture flashy moments in time, but the mundane. The 19th century flaneur was ahead of his time, freezing real moments in time by hand before photography became popularized.

In the age of photography you’d think it would be easier to capture these moments of spontaneity. And it makes sense, but the thing is that a lot of us don’t see these snapshots as art, or something worth sharing. Leslie captures these moments because she strolls through her neighborhood and prior to the pandemic, she used public transit. Depicting a moment like this is about emotion and trust in your own skills, or as Leslie describes it, “I feel that as an artist, I can take these events and present them in a visual manner that can evoke the essence of the emotion involved within the story—the hidden codes in life—and perhaps bring to light a common understanding or connection between the viewer and another person’s experience. Whether that experience is similar or foreign, the empathy is significant.” When I asked her what it was that drew her attention to her subjects, she answered, “Most of them are so split second. I don’t even think about what I do. And most of the people I’ve talked to are really interesting.” As opposed to the 19th century flaneur, Leslie communicates with her subjects. She mentioned that she’ll occasionally ask for their permission to be photographed and will engage in conversations with them. “LA has so much diversity and that is so fascinating. Like the United States does have people from everywhere, but LA is more concentrated. And everywhere you go, there’s something different and wonderful, and it’s really magical to me.”

While Leslie was born in Los Angeles, she left for Arizona after the Northridge earthquake struck in 1994. “I ran after the earthquake happened and swore I’d never come back. I came back in 2015 because my mom was sick.” The strong familial connections demonstrate how much the love and support have led Leslie to create deep and subjective content. She received her first camera when she was 10 years old, photographing off and on. Practicing her skills as a writer or a poet, she looked for ways that her ideas could be conveyed more clearly to her audience. A camera can be spontaneous, but it takes work to transform it into a third eye, staging and capturing the moments the artist wants to share with their audience.

Leslie started grad school in 2016, creating art out of the work she had completed while caring for her mom. “I did a lot of writing when my mom was sick… I loved to draw and paint and thought I’d illustrate those writings… but the images weren’t matching the writing. So I was just taking photos everywhere. With my iPhone in my pocket I was just talking photos all the time. I started accumulating photos and doing my thesis on iPhone photography. I just wanted to prove that it was an art form, it’s something that is unconventional like rock ’n roll music. I believe you have to go against the grain, because it helps you grow.” 

I’ve heard others express the inadequate use of an iPhone camera in comparison to a professional one, but Leslie doesn’t shy away from this. While expressing the fact that she has too many cameras in her home, she praises how easy it is to travel with only her iPhone. Before the pandemic, I’d remember checking in to her live streams as she made her way to Santa Monica Beach. “Being at the beach. Once you know the ocean exists and you can put your feet in there and experience yourself. There’s something about that… It’s something that never leaves you.” And as a regular user of transit, Leslie had many moments to share. When we called Leslie in early November to arrange this interview, she had such a poetic view of transit that I feel the need to share the conversation below:

Leslie: “You know, there’s a difference about riding the bus and riding the train. The train is a little more romantic and a bus just feels more like a brain. It feels like you’re in a think tank with all these other people and you can almost feel what they’re thinking because it’s just silent and you’re sharing this moment with them.”

“I feel like you can see the difference in my photos, of the ones I took on the bus and the ones I took on the train.”

John: “People on the bus are moving with intent. But when you’re on the train, you’re more likely to have people who just need a place to sleep or they’re going about the city. Like me, it’s a sort of wandering around trying to find something interesting to look at. But if you’re on the bus it feels deliberate and planned. You’re using it to go somewhere specific.”

Leslie: “Yeah, I think you tend to feel more trapped on a bus. I feel a little more free on a train.”

Because the start of the pandemic was so scary, Leslie had to pause that project. But it didn’t stop her from taking photographs. If you scroll through her Instagram you’ll notice that her photographs capture more intimate and personal moments of her life. The pandemic stripped us of meeting with the strangers we’d pass as we walked down the street, but Leslie continued to share what her days would look like within her four walls. “I started watching a lot of old silent movies like ‘The Little Rascals’ because it was filmed in LA. If there was the name of a store or a street sign, I would screenshot it and find it somewhere on the internet and screenshot that.” Leslie describes this experience as being influenced by other photographers, compiling videos and mapping the city of Los Angeles from old into new. Time Travel, for example, has a short video of well-known places in Downtown LA showing the changes within the last 100 years. Alternatively, The New Yorker has a good video of a side-by-side contrast of a car driving around Bunker Hill 70 years ago to today.

Something that struck me was also how Leslie described the start of the pandemic and the effect of it on her art practice. “It was hard to continue doing what I was doing, but I also felt like I was approaching the end of the project. I had been doing it for four years, it was meant to be about the Trump administration and how it affected LA. I felt like the project was coming to an end, but now I feel a little different about it with things opening up.” Meanwhile in Pasadena… was a new project that Leslie started after a few weeks into the stay at home order. It was a breath of fresh air after tuning into so much media coverage. Leslie described one of the really memorable moments from the Meanwhile in Pasadena… series: “One day when I was at Central Park in Pasadena, there was a couple that were having a tablecloth meal with wine and candlelight. It was so lovely, even not during a pandemic that’s something that is rare.” And it’s true, most of us struggled to find time for ourselves before the pandemic, and now it had granted us a lot of it, too much even. In light of this, Leslie continues to look at the bright side: “As a country I think we’ve grown so much, just in these past few months. I think we’re working pretty well. I think we’re heading into a kind of rebirth.”

Photo: Leslie J Frank

As we move forwards and wait for the pandemic to end, I can’t think of a better artist that illustrates what we’re fighting for. Mistywatercolormemories is like a yearbook of old memories and moments of Los Angeles. It’s been months since we’ve lost our jobs and seen our loved ones. We’re staying at home in the hope that we’ll be able to see each other under better circumstances. Leslie’s photographs capture that warmth and sense of community that we should regain. I hope that they bring about the sense of community and humanity that has been absent in our lives as of lately. Whether we’re afraid or angry at each other at this time, we need to move forward and regain the sense of unity that we’ve lost.

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