A little over a year ago, Stacey Baker posted her first photo of women's legs on Instagram. Now, 500+ photos into the series, she has more than 22,000 fans and followers. LensCulture editor Jim Casper got in touch with her via Skype to talk about the Citilegs project. Here's an edited version of the conversation:
JC: As soon as I first saw your Citilegs series, I was really taken by it. How did you get started with this project?
SB: Let me tell you, I don’t feel like I’m terribly articulate about it. I’m a photo editor and not a photographer, and I’m still trying to figure out what I find interesting about it.
Walking around the streets of New York, as you do, you are obviously seeing a lot of people, and you’re observing the people who walk past you or in front of you. So, in February or March last year I was in the Waldorf Astoria, just passing through, and I saw a woman, and I guess I was really drawn to the cut of her coat, but I also thought she had pretty, delicate legs. And I stopped and asked if I could take a picture. She said yes. So I took one, and then a couple more, and I wondered if there was something interesting in it. This was on Instagram. I began to take more, and I got encouragement from people like Kathy Ryan, my boss [the photo editor of The New York Times Magazine], and a designer in London named Matt Willey, who saw it on Instagram and was an early follower, and he said there was something there. So with that encouragement, I thought well maybe I should pursue it. So that was the origin of it.
"I ask the women to hold their hands above the heads and either pull up their shirts or tuck them in because I want only the leggings or clothes below the waist. I don’t use any filters because I really want the pictures to be as honest as possible."
Photo © Yvette Monahan
You have a real consistent esthetic in terms of framing and composition. Was that a deliberate decision on your part from the beginning?
Not from the beginning. This whole thing has been rather
fascinating to me. You know as a photo editor, this idea of having my own photo
project is new to me. So, I’m beginning to see and wonder how photographers’
projects come about. In my situation, I took just a few photographs on the
street. I don’t think you could call them documentary but they were more
environmental, and you could see the street or elements of the street. They
were fine. There are several of those early pictures that I still really like.
As it progressed, I really liked the uniformity of a wall because I felt like it really highlighted the woman’s shape. And as I go, that’s what I find the most interesting. And really of late, I’m more interested in abstraction almost and sculpture, so it just kind of morphed into that more structured approach, and I wonder if that may be what happens when other photographers have a project, and you question whether you made the right decision. But for whatever reason, that’s what’s interesting me most now.
On a related note, I’m also kind of fascinated by the walls, because there’s a serendipity to it. You know, you see a woman on the street, you think you’d like to take her picture, and you approach her, you explain the project, and I have my whole little spiel which I do in probably less than 15 seconds. Then if they are game, I have to look very quickly to see if there is a wall nearby. And sometimes there is the perfect wall, and in fact, the wall can sometimes make the picture. And at other times, the legs are interesting but maybe the wall’s not that interesting, and so the picture is less so. So sometimes there is this wonderful serendipity about the background, too.
Yes, as a series of typological photos they hang together so well. I can imagine a whole wall of them looking really great.
Thank you. I put together an edit one weekend, arranging them in different ways, and I realized that as a grid they were the most striking. It’s the variety and the scale in terms of numbers that makes it interesting.
Photo © Marvin Orellana
Were you really active in Instagram before this project?
You know I was on Instagram, and if you go way back in my feed, I took pictures of my trips and my family and friends — you know, what a lot of people do on Instagram. And then it became more and more about the legs pictures. So, I was active, but I certainly didn’t have a big following until the legs project.
Now I have three Instagram accounts. The people who follow stace-a-lace really just want to see pictures of legs, which I respect. So now I have a personal account where I take the quotidian pictures that we all like to take. And I have yet another account with no followers which are even sillier pictures. So it’s kind of interesting, and I think there are lots of people with multiple accounts that they use for different reasons.
What was the tipping point? When did people catch on that there was something interesting going on with your legs project? Did it go viral somehow? Do you know what happened?
I do. I know exactly what happened. Someone at Instagram saw on Kathy Ryan’s feed (my boss’s feed) a picture where she had taken a picture of me taking pictures of somebody’s legs. So someone was interested enough to check out my feed, and Instagram ended up writing a blog post about it, and that’s when I got a huge surge in followers. I can’t remember exactly but I went from about 2,000 followers to about 18-19,000 followers suddenly. Then other places picked it up, like the Daily Mail in London, and others, so I guess that’s when it got even more popular.
Photo © Sasha Koren
So, do you feel an obligation now to keep it fresh and current?
I do. I find that there’s nothing better than taking what I think is a great picture. I experience now what I think a lot of photographers experience. But it is also hugely filled with anxiety. Because I will take a lot of pictures, and now I think, is this good enough? Is this good enough to put up? Whereas before I don’t think I did that; I would just put it up. There is also a learning process that just comes from posting the pictures.
It’s just like jumping off a cliff. I’ll put one up and the reaction can be fascinating. The comments from various people kind of inform the pictures and inform the project. But also over time, I think it is helpful that I have posted pictures that are maybe not that good, because then you can see that it wasn’t a really good picture in the end, and here’s why.
Or here’s why this is a stronger picture. And I kind of like going in that direction
I try to remember my early spirit and excitement and not get so anxious about it, but like all people who take pictures, you want to take a really good picture. So…
And you want to continually improve and learn.
Exactly, that’s what’s most exciting to me. I want to see where else this might go. Maybe I just continue to stay in this typology framework indefinitely, which could be nice, or maybe at some point I do something else with it, or just end it. I’m not really sure.
It would be a shame to end it, because I can see how even as fashion changes this becomes a very interesting documentary project.
It’s so funny you say that, because I think, Oh surely people are going to tire of this. And I have to remember that that’s not the reason I started to take them in the beginning — I was interested in it myself.
But it’s also been fascinating to me — and this is the interesting thing about Instagram — you know you get instant feedback, either in the number of likes, which in my opinion don’t necessarily inform how good the picture is, or comments which can be interesting or strange. For example, I get the most likes on the sexiest pictures, the sexiest legs. I don’t personally think that those are the most interesting pictures — in fact, I think the pictures of legs that have more curves are far more interesting as pictures.
The comments vary from sex acts that men, in particular, want to perform on the women, to "Where did you get those leggings? ... I love her stance ... This is a series that is really empowering women ... I love the background."
So, it does speak to several different notes, whether it is fashion, culture, portraiture or sex. It’s interesting see how different people seem to be following it for different reasons.
How do different neighborhoods change the feeling of your photos?
I like are the differences in the streets and the sidewalks depending of which neighborhood I’m in. If I’m on the Upper East Side, the sidewalks are pristine — absolutely no gum, no cigarettes, but you get great textures here in mid-town or up in Harlem, so I’m also interested in those elements and what they might add to a picture.
As a photo editor do you scour Instagram to discover photographers?
We do. We absolutely do. In fact, my boss, Kathy, has made two recent discoveries on Instagram that have led to commissions or publication of imagery in the magazine.
So how do you do that? Do you type in keywords and search? Or do you look for popular photographers who have lots of followers?
Both. For example, we wanted to do a story on New York City rooftop activities in the summertime, so I did hashtag searches for #rooftops #nyc . That was one way to do it.
The more usual way to find photographers is just by following a diverse group of people, and then follow who they are following. You know it’s just that rabbit hole that Instagram is as well — you also see who other people are following.
I personally think that Instagram is the absolute best way that a photographer can get their work in front of a photo editor. It is the best visual medium on social media. I still get flyers from photographers in the mail, but that’s just one image. Whereas if I’m following your feed, I can see multiple images a day on Instagram. It’s a smart way of thinking about how to get your work in front of people. Your work is directly, immediately in front of a photo editor just as it is all of your other followers. So I think that’s a great way for getting your work in front of a lot of people.
Plus it’s also inspiring just to see what other photographers are doing on Instagram as opposed to what they do with their regular work. Some use it just as another form of social media. Some promote their existing work, the work that they take with a large format camera or their 35 mm — in other words, they are just uploading existing images to Instagram, which is perfectly respectable.
But I’m much more interested in photographers who are using Instagram as a new medium. Just as you have large format, medium format, and 35 mm you also have the iPhone. Are they exploring that and experimenting, and doing a new and different kind of project on the iPhone? I think it’s just a very exciting time and yet another new medium for photography.
— Interview with Stacey Baker by Jim Casper
Follow the Citilegs project at instagram.com/stace_a_lace. Special thanks to OjodePez magazine for featuring Stacey Baker's work on the cover of their most recent issue — that's how we first discovered this wonderful series.