Ashley Gates is a Mississippi-born photographer based in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has been exhibited at Light + Glass Gallery, Ron Blaylock Fine Art Photography Studio and Gallery, the Eudora Welty House and Garden, Black Box Gallery, the New Orleans Art Center, Zeitgeist Multi-disciplinary Arts Center, and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. She also co-curated the exhibition Best Before: Instant Photography by Southern Artists at Ron Blaylock Fine Art Photography Studio and Gallery in Jackson, Mississippi.
How did your interest in your medium begin and how did you arrive at your current style?
There is an entry in my high school diary about wanting to learn photography. I laughed when I recently came across it and thought, "Well, what took you so long?" Even though I dabbled in the darkroom as a teenager with friends who were actually studying photography, I majored in philosophy and literature in college. But after I inherited my dad's old Nikon FG camera after he died in 2005, something changed. It's not a particularly fancy camera, but it doesn't need to be. If my apartment were on fire and I could grab one thing before running out of the building, that would be it. After some encouragement from my friend and photographer Riaz Moola, I finally got the courage to pick it up and haven't really stopped shooting since. I've taken a black and white darkroom course at the School of Visual Arts in NYC, but I otherwise have no formal training in photography.
In the last two years, I've focused heavily on instant photography, thanks to David McCarty. I've shot regular Polaroid 600s throughout my life, but I'd never used a Polaroid Land Camera with peel-apart instant film until he showed me how. Sadly, the last type of peel-apart film is now discontinued, and I currently have more of it stored in my refrigerator than food.
How do you feel about the relationship of an artist to their city or surroundings?
The connection we have to certain places is a curious thing, isn't it? There is a brilliant passage in Walker Percy's mock self-help book, Lost in the Cosmos about this. Percy points out that whenever Johnny Carson (this was written in 1983) mentions the name of an American city, there is instant applause from the audience members who live in that city. He says, "The applause is of a particular character, startled and immediate, as if the applauders cannot help themselves."
Percy forces us to ask ourselves what this applause is all about. Why do we get so excited when the name of our city is mentioned? Is it because there is, in fact, something inherently dazzling about the place, something that we should be proud of? Or is it because we feel displaced in the universe, and merely hearing the name of our hometown "startles us into action"? I think it's both.
Jackson, Mississippi, Charleston, South Carolina, and New York City are the places that have fundamentally shaped me, and ricocheting between the three has taught me that there are many ways of seeing.
How do you choose your subjects?
My first instinct is to go to a new place. There is a very specific anxiety I experience in an unfamiliar place that fuels a whole new way of seeing. But no matter where I am, the right light or a particular shadow will often reveal a subject to me. I'm also drawn to things that look slightly out of place, and I have a weakness for neon. Whenever I'm in a new town, I often look for psychics and palm readers because they usually have beautiful neon windows.
Who have been some of your biggest influences or your best teachers?
So many people have taught me something about what making art may possibly mean, but just to name a few: strangers on the subway, my family, Celia Wood, Bubba Watkins, Taylor Kitchings, Michael Katchen, Walker Percy, Søren Kierkegaard, Arthur Schopenhauer, Eudora Welty, Lydia Davis, Lorrie Moore, Sally Mann, Maude Schuyler Clay, Langdon Clay, B. Davin Stengel, Anne Bryant, Chelsea Crowell, Ginger Williams, Riaz Moola, Mills Baker, Jason Polan, Nick Younes, Jana Hunter, and David McCarty.
Do you have a creative or artistic peer group in your area that you're a part of? What opportunities are there for artists like yourself in your area?
New York often feels like the eye of a hurricane, and there are endless opportunities to see and appreciate art here, but I've found a stronger sense of community in the South, especially in New Orleans and in my hometown of Jackson, Mississippi. I've also discovered many photographers and artists I like on Instagram and I post regularly there.
Where do you go to draw inspiration?
The South will always have a kind of magnetic pull for me. I keep saying, "Maybe this will be the year that I take my cameras to Paris, or Istanbul, or Tokyo", but I keep going back to the South instead. Recently I've spent a lot of time roaming the state of Mississippi (mostly the Delta), as well as the cities of Charleston, Memphis, Nashville, and New Orleans.
Are there any aspects of the Southern aesthetic that you embrace or ones you consciously avoid?
I embrace the stillness and the strangeness of the Southern landscape, its rotting signage and roads, and of course, its people. I should probably say I avoid things like kudzu and abandoned churches, but I'm sorry to report that I don't.
Tell me about a recent, current, or upcoming project or exhibition.
This month my work has been included in three shows: the Americana Music Triangle exhibit at Jazz Fest in New Orleans; an exhibit called Taking Pictures at Black Box Gallery in Portland, Oregon; and a pop-up art show at the Eudora Welty House in Jackson, Mississippi, in honor of her birthday.
I also just released a small book of found Polaroids called We Didn't See Each Other After That.
Do you feel creatively satisfied?
I struggle to imagine a time that I will kick back in a recliner and say, "Okay, I've made everything I hoped to make. I'm finished." I know—and I'm relieved—that that will never happen. I think any artistic endeavor is an attempt—consciously or unconsciously—to answer unanswerable questions. Curiosity is the linchpin for me.
Photography specifically is very solitary act, so I want to collaborate more with other artists. And by "artist" I simply mean anyone who wishes to express something that is meaningful to them, regardless of the language or medium.