Interview: Ashley Gates

Ashley Gates is a Mississippi-born photographer living in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has been exhibited in galleries across the U.S. including the New Orleans Photo Alliance Gallery, Aperture Foundation, and the Eudora Welty House and Garden. Her book of found Polaroids, We Didn’t See Each Other After That, was exhibited at the Phoenix Art Museum and was selected as one of photo-eye’s Best Photobooks of 2016. 

1. I always find some great comfort in looking at old photographs, even if they’re of people that I don’t know. What is that quality for you?

On a purely existential level it’s fascinating to look at a found photograph and realize that I will never know any of the facts about it: the Who, What, Where, When. Sometimes you can learn the When if there’s a date written on the back, or the Where if there’s an obvious landmark. But of course it’s the Who that intrigues me the most. I love that there’s this galaxy of information floating around somewhere that I’ll never have access to; there’s something final and outer-space-like about that. Naturally we try to fill in the blanks and project our own narratives onto the picture. And regardless of whether I know the person in the photo or not, it can be an emotionally overwhelming experience for me–almost embarrassingly so.

2. Both of your books are collections based on images but also based on the words we use to describe those images. Can you talk about that?

Both collections were sourced using specific search terms online. The idea for first book was a complete accident and happened only because I had been searching eBay for refrigerated Polaroid film that had never been opened. Whenever I searched “polaroid” + “refrigerator” on eBay, I would often come across actual Polaroid photographs of people standing in their kitchens. So I bought several of them and arranged my favorites in a book. 

The second book is more light-hearted and is technically a collection of screenshots, whereas the first book is a collection of physical photographs I purchased from eBay sellers and then scanned myself.

3. How did your new book come about?

I had been noticing for a while that “Not bad” was a popular caption on sunset photos that were posted across social media. I was amused by this caption because it’s one of detachment, of playing it cool. It’s almost a collective refusal to admit that something is beautiful. Or maybe it’s just a sly acknowledgement that sunset photos are ubiquitous and unoriginal. (I take them all the time, and I say take them all you want.) But once I started seeing this caption over and over again, I began searching for “sunset” + “not bad” and taking screenshots. I ultimately only used Twitter screenshots because they were the easiest to search for. It’s more difficult to find images on Instagram because their search tool doesn’t allow for multiple hashtags.

When I decided to arrange the screenshots in a book, I only searched dates ranging from November 9 to January 20–the day Trump was elected and the Inauguration–because it’s a reminder that the sun will probably still come up tomorrow, even if on some days it may not feel like it.

4. Tech specs: For your own instant work, what camera/film do you prefer to shoot.

I have a variety of instant film cameras, including the SX-70, Spectra, and a Fuji Instax, but by far my favorite instant camera to use is a Polaroid Land Camera. I have the 250 and 230 models. I prefer Land Cameras because using the peel-apart pack film (vs. the popular “shake it” polaroids we all love) feels even more like magic to me. My absolute favorite film to use with the Land Camera is the black and white Fuji FP-3000B, which is now discontinued. The level of detail it can pick up is astonishing.  

5. With Polaroid becoming scarcer and scarcer, what are you transitioning to? (If applicable. I ask this since you’re were scouring eBay for refrigerated Polaroid film.) 

I still have a lot of discontinued instant film stored in my fridge, and I’ve been trying to save it for more coherent projects or special trips. I recently shot a few packs of the Fuji pack film in Paris, and I love some of the images.

I haven’t developed a strong connection to the new Impossible Project instant film yet. I’ve had mixed results, but I’m going to keep trying. I’m perpetually thankful that they are dedicated to preserving the medium.  

6. Originally, the “refrigerator” images were intended to be instant and probably also ephemeral. Why are they still around, and why do we still care? 

When I look at an old photo that has been discarded, or one that’s for sale at a flea market or online, my very first thought is, “How did it end up here?” It’s strange to know you’re seeing something in its afterlife. So, why are they still around? I don’t know. And I think we care precisely because of those unanswerable questions. We also care because we are holding evidence of a person’s life. And they are a frightening and beautiful illumination of the fact that so many people will never know who we are– while we’re alive, and especially after we’re gone. 

7. You mention the “ordinary” in your book intro. What makes the ordinary so compelling sometimes but not others?

I think most of the ordinary snapshots we find at flea markets or elsewhere are compelling because time itself has made them extraordinary. If I take a snapshot today of my current bedroom and look at the photo tomorrow, it’s unlikely I will be moved in any meaningful way. But if I look at the photo in twenty years, who knows? Maybe I’d be moved to tears.  

8. Why instant photography? 

Each photo is irreplaceable and one-of-a-kind, and I love the finality of that. It forces me to slow down. It is also a physical object, a kind of talisman. I love shooting other kinds of film, and I also enjoy shooting digitally and with my phone, but instant photography is a unique experience. There is no saturating or leveling or adjusting or filtering at all– there’s just a singular, tangible artifact. 

9. Anything else you wanted to say or wished I asked about? (Optional.)

10. What’s your next project?

I’d like to make a book of my own instant photographs at some point, but I’m in no rush to do it. That could happen next year, or in twenty years.