September 27, 2023
SHOOT NEW YORK CITY
Photography by Leanne Staples
Interview by Bill Lacey
Successful photographers shooting on the streets of New York City possess a keen eye, an awareness of space, and instincts that put them in the right place and time to click the shutter. Not all have the passion and drive to stick with it in the way that Leanne Staples does. Her intuitive feel for the city results in a perspective of what real life truly looks and feels like. Her choices are not driven by a need for ‘likes and follows’ on social media. Rather, it is the honesty of the moment that imprints her framing of city life, both the simplicity and complexity of it. Originally from Detroit, Leanne has an attitude and approach that make her a perfect fit for the city - one could easily mistake her for a native New Yorker.
A photographer, a writer, and a mentor, Leanne doesn’t limit herself to purely street photography. She also explores the world of abstract photography, in both black and white and color. She embraces both film and digital, using whatever tools suit the moment in order to realize her vision. She moves slowly, always observant, always ready to bring the camera to her eye and frame the moment.
When walking the streets of midtown Manhattan, Chinatown, Coney Island, or less touristy destinations, you just might run into Leanne running a private or group workshop. Her rich understanding of the medium and her easy-going demeanor makes Leanne an in-demand educator of both novice and experienced photo enthusiasts. Glancing at her work, it’s easy to understand why.
“Photography is a broad subject. I shoot street, abstract street, and abstract photography. For me, street photography is an activity. It’s about forgetting about the camera and being in the moment. Capturing what I see. It is a method of participating in life. I attempt to achieve images that match my feelings and thoughts. I do this on an intuitive or emotional level. I try to leave the intellect and the technology out of the process.”
IN CONVERSATION WITH LEANNE STAPLES
THE PICTORIAL LIST: Hi Leanne, please tell us about yourself. What would you say first drew you to photography?
LEANNE STAPLES: I was born in Detroit, and I left there in 1978. My father gave me a camera when I was 12, and I’ve been shooting ever since then. I had no idea how important photography would become for me, but it has always been a form of communication in my life. Sometimes an image can say more than words. I am also a writer, and I started writing at the same time as photography.
For the past 13+ years, I have been providing group street photography workshops, private tours, and mentoring to people of all ages and backgrounds in New York City. It is a very fulfilling experience, and it is a joy to assist people in their photographic journeys.
TPL: You shoot primarily in New York City. What special qualities unique to the city influence your street photography and how you portray the community?
LS: I have the great fortune to shoot in New York City. It is a dream. That said, if I had to travel to shoot, I’d either move or quit photography. I’d like to think that people can shoot wherever they live.
Part of what makes New York City unique is the sheer diversity and number of people. I am a thoroughly urban person so it is ideal for my personality. That said, the title of many of my group street photography workshops is Seeing With New Eyes.
I shoot the same neighborhoods over and over again, and I never tire of it. There is much more to see if you take the time to look, to actually observe your environment. Most people who live here or visit here merely skim the surface of the city.
TPL: What do you want your photographs to inspire in other people? What is their “takeaway”? How do you hope people feel when viewing your work?
LS: I hope that people are inspired by my photography. It’s not a given. But I shoot because it’s what I love to do. Sharing my work with others and having them like it is the icing on the cake. That is something that wasn’t possible in the days before all thing's internet and digital.
I was born to create, and photography is an addictive pursuit. NOT for the technology and the consumer aspect. Street and other forms of photography are about self-expression. It is how I see the world. It is communication without words.
I am happy when people can connect with my work. But I don’t try to be all things to all people. I try to please myself with my work first. I hope that my photography leaves enough space in it for people to interpret in their own way. I am not trying to convey a particular message.
TPL: What is the most rewarding part of being a photographer for you?
LS: The biggest inspiration is when people are shooting with me in my workshops, and they find their inspiration, and they feel comfortable shooting street and finding new methods of doing it.
I’d like to think that there’s reason to hope in humanity. I often find it on the streets. To be in the middle of a melting pot surrounded by people I will never meet and are beyond the six degrees of separation.
TPL: When do you feel most inspired?
LS: Great question. I wish I could give you a good answer to that. A good night’s sleep. Strong coffee. Forgetting about a million things going on in the world and just observing my environment.
TPL: What are some challenges that you have faced as a photographer?
Sometimes I get bored of the same routine, and then I switch up how I shoot. Lately, I’ve been shooting in Auto mode and really liking it.
I don’t have many challenges in photography. I think that social media is a double-edged sword. It can be helpful and harmful at the same time. I try not to take it too seriously. Some of my favorite photos get very few likes. At the same time, those that I don’t like so much get lots of likes. So now I just post and what will be will be.
I have met some amazing people both virtually and in person through social media, and it’s wonderful to be featured by The Pictorial List and others. Thank you!
My photography is like a journal of my life in images. It is how I participate in life.
TPL: When you take pictures, do you usually have a concept in mind of what you want to shoot, or do you let the images just "come to you", or is it both? Please describe your process.
LS: When it comes to street photography I am careful to not have preconceived ideas about what I would like to capture. I like to be surprised by the light, the weather, and the people that I will encounter.
I intentionally walk slowly. Street photography is the art of observation. If you are moving quickly you will miss the subtleties. I look for things that attract my eye. For that reason, I set my camera up and forget about it and previewing images. I want to be in the moment and ready to shoot.
TPL: Do you have any favorite artists or photographers you would like to share with us and the reason for their significance?
LS: I have so many favorite artists and photographers. Saul Leiter is at the top of the list. I especially like how many of his photos almost look like paintings. I also really like Gerhard Richter and how many of his paintings look like photos. When you no longer know which medium it is. Blurring the lines as it were.
TPL: If you could just choose one photographer to shoot alongside for a day..., who would you choose? And why?
LS: Robert Rauschenberg. He was a great artist and photographer, and he continues to inspire me on a regular basis.
TPL: What was the first camera you ever held in your hand, brought to your eye, and released a shutter on? What is the camera you use now, and your preferred focal length? Does the equipment you use help you achieve your vision in your photography?
LS: The Nikkormat was my first camera back in 1966. That said, I think I had an Instamatic before that. But, the Nikon FE was the camera that I used for many decades before my entry into digital photography.
I now use a combination of cameras. Fuji X100 V, Fuji X Pro 3, Nikon FE 2, Polaroid 600, and a number of other film and toy cameras. They are all tools that provide different possibilities. These are the cameras that I am able to bond with, and they allow me to pursue my vision.
TPL: Tell us about your workshops, your books, your online blogs, and any events you want us to know about.
LS: I provide group street photography workshops in different areas of New York City on most weekends throughout the year. I welcome photographers of all levels of experience, and I limit my workshops to 5 people so that everyone receives individual attention.
I also provide private workshops and mentoring, and in both private and group workshops I help people find their own style and see photography in new ways. Street photography is an art. There is no paint-by-number recipe for it. You just have to get out there and do it.
I have a newsletter for Shoot New York City, which is the name of my one-person independent business. I have self-published 2 photo zines of my street photography, and I hope to make more if I can learn how to use the technology to make books.
TPL: “When I am not out photographing, I (like to) …
LS: I write, read, exercise, meditate, listen to music, spend time with art and photography books, and watch cinema.”
Leanne Staples is a passionate and driven street photographer whose honest perspective of city life captures both its simplicity and complexity. Her knowledge of photography, from film to digital, and her ability to mentor others bring the art of street photography to people around the world. If you would like to experience a window into New York City through her lens, go visit her website, participate in a workshop or connect with Leanne through Instagram.