Australian, Grant Ashford is the street photographer whose use of black and white to capture the streets intrigued us here at #itchysilk. It was however once we started talking with Grant that we fully appreciated the man.
While he had a successful career in mainstream photography with work in high profile publications he found that once he had fulfilled this ‘dream’ it failed to live up to his expectations. A period of two years passed where he did not pick up a camera but a trip to Mexico on the streets of Tijuana re-ignited the passion and far from a pursuit of monetary gain, Grant found the joy of catching an ‘image’ returned.
Consequently Grant’s work is charged with vibrancy as images re-tell the multitude of stories that Grant sees-indeed his images draw you into the stories to the point that you not only see what he captures but evidently feel that time, moment and place-we love it.
Photography explain what it means to you and why you are passionate about it?
I don’t have a passion for the camera, it’s merely a tool much like the painter’s brush. Photography for me is a creative outlet which provides a quick fix of satisfaction capturing a pleasing image. I do not have the patience of a painter, sculpture or musician therefore the camera is a medium that enables me to be on the street and to photograph a scene and view the results quickly. I pay very little attention to the camera when working the street – it becomes an extension of my hand and eyes. I never look through the viewfinder and never look at the LCD screen for composure-I just know instinctively where to point the thing and get the shot.
Explain your photography history-how did you get into it and was it always a choice of career?
I got my first camera when I was a young boy- It was a gift, a Kodak 110 format Instamatic. Ever since I have always had cameras of some sort mostly for recording my life and friends. Many years later I grabbed my Pentax Program A 35mm film camera and went to the beach to photograph an approaching thunderstorm. I managed to get a great shot of the billowing black clouds scudding across the sea. It was at sunset and the combination of this and the clouds made for a dramatic photo. I had it enlarged and hung on my wall for a few years.
So, your interest was sparked from there?
Yes, I became interested in photography and dreamt of being a professional. I had no idea how to do this so I planned to have a photo published in a magazine. I wrote an article and submitted this and accompanying photos to a national publication and they bought it. It was very inspiring receiving an acceptance slip in the mail followed by a check. This kicked off my freelance career and over the years I have had many stories and photographs published around the world. Sometime later I began shooting glamour and my work was regularly published in various magazines. The money was great and my focus began to shift towards making money and photography merely became a job. I just had a major feature and cover shoot published and the day it hit the bookshelves instead of elation I suddenly found myself depressed. I had reached my goal; climbed my mountain and the view was not what I imagined.
From that day on I turned my back on photography and packed my cameras away. I had no inspiration left in me. The editor of Penthouse Magazine called a few days later offering me a dream job on staff with the magazine and fifteen hundred dollars a day shooting gorgeous women in exotic locations however I kindly turned down the offer. My friends thought I was crazy, but I felt empty and discouraged.
So how did you re-connect with photography?
Two years later I was visiting Tijuana Mexico and took my Canon EOS film camera loaded with Kodak TMax with the intention of photographing the sights. The Canon had a 70-200mm F2.8 lens attached and I was standing on the street corner about to photograph the local Mariachi performers when all of a sudden a little lady walked up to me and said. “Hey, Señor. Put that camera away, you will be robbed.” I quickly packed the lens away and switched to a 20mm F2.8 and slung the camera over my shoulder and covered it with my shirt tails with only the lens peeking out. I spent the next few days walking around the back alleys and slums of Tijuana shooting the streets-hip-shot. With the 20mm lens I was able to get in close and engage with people while firing off a few frames. I loved the candidacy and un-posed expressions- people doing everyday things but in the isolation of a single photo become art. I felt like God took me all the way from Australia to Mexico to rekindle my passion and send me in a new direction. I sensed a change inside me that day and felt in tune with the rhythm of the street- and have never lost that exhilarating feeling.
Technically analog over digital what’s your preference and why?
I spent many years in the dark room and loved it but love the digital age. Simpler the better for me. I hardly use photoshop anymore. Snapseed on my iPhone is what I use mostly. I send my images taken on the Fuji across to the phone for edits. This is less tedious as most of my work is uploaded to Instagram. Having said that, years in the darkroom also taught me a great deal, analogue was a great way to get my exposures right because I could not afford to shoot prolifically so I had to make every shot count.
What are you using and why?
I professionally used Canon system for many years with a variety of “L” series lenses; which I still use sometimes, however I absolutely love the Fuji X Pro 2. It’s a small rangefinder excellent for the way I shoot street photography.
And what about your shooting style?
My shooting style is unusual. I hold the camera upside down in one hand and shoot without ever looking through the viewfinder or LCD screen as I mentioned earlier. I feel like a gunslinger shooting from every different angle. Everything is set to Auto and I generally have a high ISO around 1250-2500. I don’t like to let the camera or technicality get in the way of a shot. The camera is merely the device that records the scene- an extension to my eyes. This style allows me to act fast and not worry about light readings and so forth. I think after years photographing this way my composure is pretty spot on now days.
You seem to use black and white a lot why?
I love black and white as I feel it leaves something for the viewer to fill in. You’re not giving the full story so their imagination has to work. Much like a writer must “show” not “tell” in their novel.
How would you describe the type of work you do?
I see my work as recording a moment in history, a small part of human life, an interaction at this time and place then hoping to make that moment into art. Maybe one day in the future people will look at my work and reminisce what life must have been like then. I look at photos of great moments in history and think how great it would’ve been to be there taking that photo.
Much of your work seems to be about capturing real-life and some details those who may be less fortunate-what intrigues you about them as subjects?
I like to search out subjects with character. I find that many homeless folk have great character. They’re not wearing the latest fashion, often un-shaved and don’t care about who they offend and most have an interesting life story if you take the time and talk with them. I also like to take a scene and capture it in a way that others don’t see, often using the environment around them that is taken for granted.
Having been a photographer for so many years what mistakes if any do you feel current photographers make?
I see so many street photographers downtown wearing a photo vest a Nikon hat and several bodies around their neck and camera backpack. I don’t think you can get into the rhythm of the street carrying all that gear and dressed like a photographer. The street is like a theatre performance with many actors doing their part. I want to be the photographer who is unseen weaving in and out of each scene capturing the moments and move on to the next act. A bit like a scrap of paper fluttering on the breeze down the street- nobody takes notice they just go about their day.
How hard personally have you found it (if you have) maintaining a career in photography?
It can be very hard sometimes if your creative talents merge into money making motives. I think to be successful you need to be able to switch between business and artist. Some people have that ability but I don’t think I do. Probably the reason why many artists don’t make money until after they die. I know many very successful photographers who make great money running a studio or wedding photography and they can manage both creative and business-I wish I could do that.
Any photographers who have had an impact on what you shot an indeed how?
I love the work of W Eugene Smith. When I was starting out in photography I would sit for hours in the library looking at his photo books, studying the light and composure of each image. I loved how he captured a raw fleeting moment of human life- especially his Country Doctor series-Don McCullin is another great photographer and there is a great documentary about his life on You-tube worth watching. Robert Capa was a great photojournalist who covered the war eventually dying doing what he loved. Something about these guys’ work really touches me. They dared to believe and pursued their passion-security can be the strongest prison of human talent and dreams.
What projects if any do you have in the pipeline-or indeed what is inspiring you?
At the moment I am spending a fair amount of time riding my new Harley Davidson but still have the camera with me. I have been shooting a bit of abstract architectural photos lately incorporating people in the photos. It keeps me fresh and adds a bit of variety for me, these shots end up on my Instagram feed too and I get good reaction on them.