A Talk With Ashley Lebedev, Conceptual Photographer

Ashley Lebedev is unlike any photographer I know. Her style is unforgettable. She tells stories with her art and leaves viewers feeling like they have been kicked in the gut (or the heart). Just the kind of art I like. I was fortunate enough to interview Ashley, and publish some of her work on the Nonsense Society website. Please enjoy.

What inspires you?

As complicated as this might seem, it’s pretty simple answer for me. I absolutely love creativity and passion. Passionate people & passionate experiences really do it for me. I draw so much sustenance from everything around me. Though I’m in this industry of photographers and artists, I find just as much inspiration from the guy down at the liquor store who knows every single thing there is to know about wine, as if he works there to vicariously live through a vineyard. I really dig people and experiences like that. Another part of life that I think we often take for granted, and that I draw an immense amount of inspiration from is the simplicity in nature. The best things in life really are free. I find the closer I am to really being close with those sorts of things, the more open I am to really being inspired and giving back. The more I fill myself up with passion, simplicity, and nature (and the more I nurture it), the more I find I can draw freely from own creative flow. Lastly, poetry. It never fails me.

What equipment/editing programs do you use?

Currently I shoot with a Canon 5d mark ii, but that’s actually rather new for me. I started on a 6 mgpx point & shoot, and soon after worked for several years on the very entry level 400d (rebel xti). In addition to that, I work with:
28-135mm 3.5-5.6 IS USM (great all around lens – so versatile)
50 mm 1.8 (my favorite self portrait lens)
35 mm f2 (probably use this the least, but great wide angle)
85 mm 1.8 (favorite for portraiture)
18-55 mm kit lens (never use)
In addition to that, I do own Alien Bee equipment for shooting in studio, but often stick with my preferred natural light & external flash/reflectors. I often find (and perhaps it’s just my own aesthetic) that I continuously prefer shooting with simple lighting setups and on location.
Lastly, I own a tripod with remote, for the self portraiture and landscape aspects of my work.
As far as post work, I utilize both Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom. Both are great programs, and I use them often.

Who do you look up to?

I tend to find myself continuously drawn to the masters of philosophy, poetry, and painting. I have a much more classical mind than contemporary. Men like John Keats and Pablo Neruda really were something special in the way that they saw the world, and in turn, relayed it to the masses without any hesitation. I really look up to that. They saw beauty and simplicity as well as the metaphors in everything from death to nature to shapes. I also love the work of painters like John William Waterhouse and Maxfield Parrish.

Where do you want to take your photography career (if there were no limits or doubts)?

My ideal career would be to live and flourish as a self sustaining artist for the rest of my life. I see myself being really happy publishing books and traveling the world, selling to magazines, and maintaining gallery installations as well as staying on the more “Fine Art” side of the industry. The rest of it’s just a bit too fast for me, and sort of defeats the purpose of why I started telling my story through a lens to begin with. I’d like to eventually meld my passion of photography with my passion for writing, and soon than later. People say it’s impossible to solely work for oneself. I’ve been doing it for 4 or so years, and though it’s not always easy, I wouldn’t say it’s in any way impossible. I believe in following your dreams to the ends of the earth, because this IS where they will take you, and I think there’s so much reward and validation around those corners. There’s a lot to be said for being brave enough to give it a go. I would recommend never letting anyone set your limits, but yourself. ;)

Why is your work so DARK?

You know, I get asked this a lot, and I’ve never seen this as clearly in my work as others have seemed to notice. I guess my work (especially the fine art aspect of photography) really is a visual diary, and representative of my opinions through life experience. I’m often told that my work is very sad, but maintains a certain sense of hope or grace or beauty amidst its message. When I look at my life, and the opinions I have about my own experiences and how I want to relay that, I definitely see that there is a strong dichotomy of being torn between the beauty and the bittersweet that may very well find its way to the other side of a lens. I also find that I actually find sad things completely beautiful in many ways. It’s all a part of living, and I find honesty, regardless of its origin, a really beautiful subject matter.

What are your favorite emotions? How do you capture them in photographs?

In real life, I tend to avoid anything negative or that might complicate a sense of living simply, but that’s why I like photography and creating – because the camera really can become an alter ego to live out and capture the things or parts of oneself that perhaps we don’t fully embrace or let into our ‘real lives’. In front of the lens, I think I really do love every emotion in some way or another. Having a look through my work, though, it seems I do have a very specific affinity towards a sort of simple femininity, relayed through beauty or sadness. Not sure if that’s so much an emotion as much as it’s a subject matter.
I can say this: In all of my work, I continuously strive to tell a story. I have found that the best way to capture this is by disallowing it to be a contrived one. I try to allow everything from the subject matter to the model to my own sense of interpreting the moment, etc…the patience and freedom to work together, as needed, to make the most honest representation of what was able to go into that picture on any given day.

Describe the perfect model/subject to photograph.

Anyone with a story. I find beauty in many different kinds of people, and it’s not even necessarily physical beauty that draws me to a subject. I shoot gorgeous top models as well as bartenders I meet during late night dinners as a restaurant. I think it’s really more of an essence that someone gives off. People sometimes mention individuals that have a ‘Je ne sais quois’ about them. I think that’s very much true for those I’m drawn to photographing. I also find that I have the most fun on shoots with models that are very down to earth, willing to go the extra mile, and are willing to try anything with me, trusting in my vision. As far as the perfect subject matter, I’m not sure there is one, but I definitely love creating conceptual works that have a very nostalgic, historical, quiet theme and message.

What obstacles have you overcome?

Wow. Good question. This one really hits home for me in such a way. This really gets into why I picked up a camera to begin with, and further, why I choose to not shoot commercially, but rather, for myself. When I was 18 years old, I was diagnosed with a very rare and serious health condition. At that age, it was literally a death sentence. This is where the camera steps in. I was leading a very hard and difficult life for several years, trying to maintain my goals and dreams with a very serious medical ailment, and being so young, I wasn’t really prepared to take on what I was given. I found so much solace and almost redemption behind the lens of a camera. I’m 27 now and so far removed from where I was at 18, and the feelings that sickness can so often bring to one’s life, permanently. I believe there is a photography quote that goes something like: “The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.” The things I discovered through every facet of photography really turned around the way I look at the world as well as everything and everyone in it. I appreciate everything more, and see how much a camera has really taught me about ‘noticing’ the small things we often take for granted, and the world around us. The camera has challenged me to be brave, and has been an incredibly means of therapy, allowing me a visual diary whenever I need it. In being able to capture an image and freeze it in time, I find I’m able to ‘let go’ of many other things that at one time I couldn’t fathom.

Why do you continue to live this life of an artist?

Simply…because I must.

Couldn’t you do something easier?

No I couldn’t. Not even a little. There is nothing easier or harder than following your heart.

Find out more about Ashley Lebedev on her website, flickr, blog, twitter, myspace, or facebook.