I visited with Ashley Johnson on her upstairs porch, surrounded by her thriving container garden, her cat Queesha weaving in and out of the wooden rails and around our ankles. Her home is bright and airy, with a long row of windows pouring light in, an inspiring place for her photography studio.
I’ve long admired Ashley’s fine art photography. And I’m not alone — her work is shown around the country and available for purchase from a well known art retailer. Her portfolio boasts a wide range of powerfully memorable images, scenes of black men and women, often with faces hidden by flowers or masks and lit in a way that makes the image seem to sing. In between asking for gardening tips and take-out favorites, I got to the big reason for my visit: how does she conceptualize these impactful photographs?
“I don’t make work just to show it,” she said. “I really make work around an idea or a problem, something I’m navigating and things I write about. It’s a study.” Like a few years ago when she wondered what it would be like if she had natural hair, and she cut all of her hair off one day, herself. And she hated it. Ashley got waist-long braids the next day, but she couldn’t stop thinking about it and after a couple of weeks, she took the braids out. She started journaling the way her natural hair made her feel and studying what place black women’s hair held in society and in history. Then, as if setting down her pen and picking up her camera, Ashley told this story through her art; she photographed models whose faces were covered in masks of hair, wrappings she made herself of synthetic hair like the layers of identity she sought to untangle.
Her most recent photographic series, Mark Yourself Safe, was inspired by a fever dream she had, the intricate details of which she immediately wrote down in her journal upon waking. She photographed the scenes just as she dreamed them: black men with vivid orange Rorschach shapes painted on their backs. “What I was most interested in, especially in 2020 with all these uprisings, was how we observe and understand fear in our bodies; where our ideas of fear come from, especially when it comes to black men.”
Ashley’s gift of such a bold and bright imagination really brings her work to life. Lately, she’s drawn to telling stories with objects and she’s doing product photography for brands that notice the beauty of the images she takes of her own real life. “And that is the highest reward,” Ashley said of being offered creative projects that align with her real life, “I don’t have to pretend to be anybody other than a girl who likes to cook on her porch.”
August 25, 2021