To slip into the work of Ashley West Leonard is to take a disorienting journey down a fairytale noir rabbithole slathered in smudged eyeliner and stuffed with emptied gin bottles. She is a master storyteller of imperfect stories, capturing moments of loneliness, lust, and longing with a knowing mystic’s gaze. Her landscapes are rendered in tones both chaotic and silent, and her portraits are Hitchcockian film stills with one toe dangling in pulp waters. This isn’t to say that there isn’t light in Leonard’s work – it’s there in abundance – but she chooses her prism carefully.
What is your earliest memory of realizing that you wanted to take photos and/or that you connected to photography as an art form?
This came to me late in life. I have no idea why, but I asked my mom for her old film camera in 2005 and took a black and white film developing class at Barnsdall Art Park. Maybe because I was in a shitty relationship at the time and I needed an escape that acting wasn’t giving me. Maybe there was some sort of suggestion in The Artist’s Way, which I was reading then. The class taught me that I have no interest in developing film! I did, however, really enjoy looking for things to take pictures of. When I got a flip phone with a camera in it, I was super excited. Manipulating the tiny, low-fi images in a very old version of Photoshop gave me great pleasure. I was making something out of nothing and I was doing it totally by myself – I relied on no one!
For what it’s worth, I think that part of my training as a dancer led me to photography. I didn’t know it until she passed away, but the head of the dance department at my college was also a photographer. One of the things she burned into us was that every moment, every movement on stage must be perfect – she said she ought to be able to take a picture at any time and find perfectly aligned arms, toes pointed, eyes fixed, etc. It was technique that stuck with me, perhaps, in all my creative ventures.
How did you go about learning your way around a camera?
You ask that as if I DO know my way around a camera. 😉 When I finally got a DSLR, I put it on Manual and just pressed buttons until I got what I wanted. I’m a little more knowledgeable now, but basically it’s the same process.
What is your go-to camera and/or set-up and why?
My iPhone is my go-to because it’s always with me, but I shoot professionally with a Canon 5D Mark III. I get lo-fi and hi-fi with both, which seems to serve whatever project I’m tackling. Since I’ve never had a lot of money for lights and a studio, I usually use a Speedlite for bouncing light, and occasionally a Ringflash for fill or “glamour.” Really, if I can get people into some amazing natural light, I’m happy. I’m not an egghead, I’d much rather spend my time talking to my subject/model.
Do you have a preference between film and digital, and if so, why?
DIGITAL!! Like I said, I came to it late so film is not something I spent time shooting with. Also, film is expensive. I have several fine art photographer friends who shoot with medium format cameras and develop on wet plates with old world processes. Those friends also happen to be independently wealthy and unemployed. Good for them! Not for me.
What do you hope to express, share, or do with your photography?
Ohhhh, how to not sound like a douchey art student… It’s for me, first and foremost. When I share it, I’m sharing my experience – the same way I would when I get on stage or write a story. I hope to make contact with someone – anyone. Selfishly, I want to remember things. I have a very bad memory and photography has allowed me to keep in touch with where I’ve been and what I’ve done so that I’m not just an untethered heathen making the same mistakes over and over.
Generally, I’m not interested in conventional beauty. I’m interested in a pile of shit on the sidewalk or a torn up wall with wires sticking out of it.
I have a couple of projects in perpetual development which deal with social issues I feel strongly about. Ideally, I’d like to create fine art with a message.
Who is a photographer that inspires you, living or dead, and why?
I knew this one was coming! I’m so bad at this – remembering names. I will say that in 2002, I was in a Clive Barker play called Crazyface. I was living in Hollywood at the time and there was this used book store (I don’t think it’s there anymore, despite a lot of people trying to save it) – it was two floors of floor to ceiling books. The floors were dirty, the overweight nerds who worked there smoked cigarettes all day so there was this nicotine film over the windows. It was the kind of place you’d expect to find some sort of treasure in. I was hoping to find something to use as opening night presents for the cast so I started looking for books that dealt with the themes in the play. I ended up in the photography section and pulled out a William Eggleston book. It sounds ridiculous now, knowing how famous he is, but I was blown away. I’d never seen pictures like those. Every plate was a revelation. I bought the book and horrifyingly sliced the pages out, and created little personalized collage gifts for my cast mates. A few of them have told me they still have them hanging in their homes. That year, I used more images from the book and wrote short stories for each one, mounted them and gave them as Christmas presents. I have a lot of love for Eggleston, as do most photographers – which is why you see so much photography that looks like his.
Can you describe a time someone has expressed to you that they’ve been affected by or connected to your work (and link to the photo, if possible)?
The Kiss (above) – This is Emilio and Crystal Rae kissing on their wedding day. I think people like this pic for obvious reasons – there is motion, passion, earthly elements. These people are not posing – they are literally swept away.
Otherwise, what I hear a lot is that the writing that accompanies some of my series is what makes it all come together. Surprisingly, most people really like The Other Woman (above). This image was shown in a gallery and the gallerist hung it right inside the door so that it accosted everyone who came in. Most people were taken aback, a little afraid of it – which I love!
What is one nugget of advice you’d give to someone interested in pursuing photography, whether as a passion or profession?
The same I’d give to anyone wanting to be an artist – don’t do it for money, hold fast to your identity and be confident that your experience is amazing and like no one else’s. Exploit the shit out of that and don’t be so hard on yourself and other artists.
Please link to one of your favorite photographs (i.e. one you’ve taken) and share the story behind it.
I’ve been stuck on this one for a while. There are many reasons I like pictures I take, but they’re usually not shared by anyone else, so it gives me pause to put one out there. This image (above) was taken during one of the darkest times in my life. It’s from a series I began and never finished called Romantic Dinners and Walks on the Beach – and was to chronicle the pitch black soul of my dating life in Los Angeles. I have a collection of photo artifacts from that time which show the fuckshit loneliness I was experiencing. Honestly, photography has been one of my greatest companions. This picture in particular is one of my favorite self-portraits because it affirmed for me that the masks I wear are changeable and transient. And disposable! 🙂 I suppose I should title it “The Quicker Picker Upper”. heh…