Transcript - Episode 92: Ashly Stohl
Hello, and welcome to Keep the Channel Open, a podcast featuring conversations with artists, writers, and curators. My name is Mike Sakasegawa and this is episode 92. Today’s guest is Ashly Stohl.
Hello, everyone, welcome to the show. Today’s guest is Ashly Stohl. Ashly Stohl is a photographer based in Los Angeles and New York, and co-founder and Publisher of Peanut Press, an independent photobook publisher.
I’ve been a fan of Ashly’s work for years now. Regular listeners will probably know that I have a particular affinity for photography where the artist is photographing their own family, not least because that’s a subject that I work with myself. Ashly’s Charth Vader series was one that stood out to me several years ago because of the way that the series incorporated both humor and pathos, which is not something that I’ve seen a lot of in family work, before or since.
Ashly’s latest series is called Days & Years, and as an introduction, I’d like to read the artist statement for the series:
“There is a saying that all portraits are really self portraits. So what are portraits of your kids? They are portraits of a parent. I take pictures of my kids, and if you’ll look closely you’ll also see me in there – my worries and fears, my attempts to correct the problems of my own childhood, my heart and my struggles.
Motherhood isn’t talked about enough in public places. Oh they say it’s the most important job in the world, but it isn’t treated that way, is it? People like it when you talk about the wonderful aspects, like hugs and fireflies in a jar, and of course that stuff makes everyone feel good. Motherhood is wonderful, but it’s also hard, and women only talk about the hard parts conspiratorially over a glass of wine, or late at night on the internet in private groups and instant messages. I want to talk about it in public because I’m tired, and when I’m tired the filter between my brain and my mouth (or keyboard) completely breaks down. Can we just talk about what it’s really like, like out in public? Sorry if it makes you uncomfortable. Actually not sorry.
In parenting circles, people often say, “the days are long and the years are short,” and for me nothing has ever felt so true. When Sara was a colicky newborn, I didn’t think I could survive a single day, and now she’s seventeen and going to college. Where did it go, all that time when the clock moved so slowly? Well some of it is in these pictures – the good, the bad and the ugly. The days I was my best, and the days I was not, and the same for my kids. It’s all there in our memories and in these pictures, The Days & Years.”
I think anyone who has kids can relate to the emotions that Ashly is describing in her statement and which I find very present in her images, you know, that feeling of time passing, of ephemerality. I’ve put a link in the show notes to the image gallery on Ashly’s website, and if you’re not already familiar with her work, I do recommend pausing the show and taking some time to look at the pictures beforehand.
One more thing before we start, Ashly has also turned this series into a photobook, which is currently available via Peanut Press. I’ve put a link in the show notes for that as well so do pick up a copy!
Alright, let’s get to it. Here’s my conversation with Ashly Stohl.
Mike Sakasegawa: So, you know, one of the things that I like to do whenever I talk to anyone is think back to see if I can remember how I first became aware of their work. I'm pretty sure the first thing that I knew of your work was when you were participating in Six Shooters.
Ashly Stohl: Oh, yeah.
AS: That was a while ago.
MS: It was. I found that because, funny enough—you know, we were just before the show talking about Medium—that I had met Aline through Medium and then through her work and through meeting her, found Six Shooters and then found a whole bunch of other people whose work I was really interested in.
AS: Oh, that's great. Then it did its job.
MS: [laughs] Yeah. That was a project that I've always thought was really interesting, this whole idea of a photographic conversation. And if it's okay—I mean, I know it was a while ago, but I was wondering if we could talk about that just real quick.
AS: Sure. So we were just kind of a group of women and friends that are all photographers. And we were sitting at lunch, it was someone's birthday and I—you know, six women going are going to argue with how the story came up.
AS: I had done this sort of thing with a friend, we'd seen someone else do it and he and I just sort of sent pictures back and forth to each other. And we declared that we were not going to comment on it. Like sometimes I'd look at his—so the idea was I'd post a picture and he'd post one in response and I'd respond to that. And it was funny not talking about it because sometimes I'd look at something and go, "What is he responding to? Like is he responding to the bare light bulb in the corner or is it the feeling of the picture?" You know, there's so many ways you can respond photographically and to look at what someone responds to in the picture—you think it's about one thing, they picked up on something else—is interesting. So we're sitting at lunch at someone's birthday and we decided to do that for fun. It was a really fun exercise. It makes you look through your library of photographs. It makes you sometimes go out and shoot on purpose. It gives you a little prompt. Yeah, it was great. It was a fun thing to do with friends.
MS: Yeah. Now you're primarily a film shooter, right?
AS: I am. In recent years I've started shooting more digital just because I shoot my family and when you're shooting 400 speed film in the house at night, you're going to miss things. You know, the kids are coming at you fast. It's dark. There's not a lot of lights. Maybe I'm not the fastest shooter in the world. And so shooting digital, I got a Leica Q. I've always used Leicas, generally [an] M6, so a Leica Q to me felt sort of the same. It's a wide lens, which I like. My hands can operate the same way. It's sort of intuitive for me. If I pick up a Canon, which I used to use years ago, I no longer know how to hold that.
AS: You know what I mean?
AS: Like there's this sort of automatic response of your hands when you're holding a camera that you know how to use.
MS: Yeah, definitely. I mean, everybody always talks about the tools, you know, once you stop having to think about them, that's when you can really get your best work done.
AS: Exactly. And you can shoot faster, meaning plan out the photograph, get the right exposure, you know, focus, all of these things. You can do all of that faster when your hands don't have to think.
MS: Right. The only reason I was asking about that was just because I remember when I talked to Aline for the show, we talked about Six Shooters a little bit and one of the questions I'd had for her—this was a couple, three years ago now—but one of the questions I'd had for her was whether she was making images to respond to the one that she was following or whether they were all archive pictures. And for her, she was saying that because she's a film shooter that she can't really—you know, they're all archive pictures. But then you just said some of them for you were new and some of them were archive pictures. I thought that was kind of an interesting contrast.
AS: Yeah. I don't even remember what is what, but, yeah, that's true. We each had a day of the week, I think I was Friday or Saturday or something. So, you know, you have to wait. You basically have 24 hours because you have to see what's coming up the day before that you're going to respond to. And then you've got to sort of comb through your photographs, you know, to find your response.
AS: Which is both great because it makes you go through old work, which I love. You know, sometimes you look at it differently, going through it later, you appreciate different pictures. And at the same time, it's a pressure. I'm picky about what I put out in the world. Like most photographers, I take a lot more photographs than I show. And so in that case, you wanted to come up with something that not just responds to the photograph before but you feel like represents you as a photographer and is of appropriate quality.
AS: You know, you don't want to put something out there that you wouldn't be proud to show to people.
MS: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, especially for a project like that where it actually did become something that you were really presenting to everybody. That kind of—you know, process-wise—maybe leads into talking about some of the rest of your work because as you mentioned, you take pictures of your kids. And I've heard you talk in other interviews that that's just something that you're sort of naturally doing anyway, that you kind of just have your camera around. The first solo project of yours that I knew was the Charth Vader series.
MS: Which I think probably that... I mean, how big that that became and how viral it went, I would imagine that probably that was a lot of people's entry into your work. Would you say that's...?
AS: I think so. It was the first time that I realized people sometimes knew my work, but not my name. I'd be introduced to someone in the photo community and they’d go, "Nice to meet you." And someone would go, "Oh, Charth Vader." And they'd go, "Oh!" Which to me, I'd rather have them know my work than my name any day.
MS: Hmm. It is kind of a weird thing. That distinction.
AS: I don't know. But I don't know anyone's name.
AS: [laughs] But if you tell me a picture, I know it.
MS: Oh, that's funny.
AS: Yeah, it was really incredible, what happened to that.
MS: A lot of people have written about this series since you first published it. And of course people like to talk about the humor in it, which is great. One of the things that, for me—and this is also something that has been brought up before—that I thought was interesting about it, was how it does have this emotional depth to it besides just the surface humor of the scenarios that you're shooting.
AS: Yeah. Well, I hope so. You know, it's about my son, who's visually—I actually have two sons who are visually impaired. My youngest, Charlie—aka Charth Vader—is just a funny human being.
AS: But as a mother looking at your child who has obstacles and life is more difficult, it's all so much more charged. You know, you look at him doing stuff and you're hoping he's going to be okay. Any mother thinks that, but I think it's more so when you have a kid with challenges. So to me the humor is important because that's how our family is. I mean, we all think we're funny.
AS: [laughs] But it's also like this is my baby. Is he going to be okay? He can be frustrated. And what was interesting to me is that I shot all this from the perspective of a mother of a kid with challenges. What's interesting to me is how many people responded to it just in terms of being a child. We all remember being frustrated and feeling out of control in our lives and, you know, you're going somewhere in the back seat of the car, you don't know where you're going, you're bored, you're mad. And I think when we portray kids, we don't talk about those things enough. Childhood gets sort of idealized. And I think we have to recognize that kids have—I mean, you've got kids. Kids have anger, kids have frustration. They also have joy and humor and all of those things. But it's not bad to talk about the angry, frustrated parts.
MS: No. It's interesting because something that you've talked about in a lot of interviews—and it's even in some of your artist statements, for Charth Vader and for the Days and Years project—is how people don't talk a lot about the difficult parts of parenthood. What I think is sort of interesting here is that, exactly as you say, a lot of people who take pictures of children especially have this way of idealizing the experience. People don't often talk about the fact—I find even a lot of other parents don't really fully reckon with the fact that their kids are actual full people with—
MS: —just as rich and deep and complex an emotional landscape as adults have. They just don't have the same vocabulary that we do.
AS: Well, also when you have kids with special needs… In a way I've had to talk about it because I don't want you to look at my kid and think he's odd or whatever because he's not making great eye contact because he can't really see your eyes that well or whatever. It's kind of a defense mechanism. And also a little bit of my personality is just to say the thing that no one wants to say.
AS: Raising these kids, my tactic—and some people go the other way. Some people don't want to talk about their kids' challenges and I respect that. You get through it however you can. But for me it's been easier to lay it out there, "These are our challenges," so people can understand, they know how to interpret my kids. Which makes them sound weirder than they are. I mean, they're really just kids, but—
AS: [laughs] It's amazing how much mothers can judge kids who seem a little different. So it's out of wanting to protect them from that.
AS: And also just very little filter.
MS: [laughs] One of the things that I—I don't know if you... I don't expect my guests to have researched me or anything. [laughs]
MS: But as a photographer myself and someone who, I also photograph my family and primarily my kids. Something I think about a lot in other people's work is how other people do it.
MS: So I've seen a lot of different kinds of family-oriented fine art photography—
MS: —over the years. What I've noticed is I feel like people take pictures... I mean, obviously everybody takes pictures of their kids, it's just something you can't help doing. But there's something about your photographs. And I want to try to say this in a way that is what I mean, but—
MS: —I don't want to disparage anybody else's work and I definitely don't want to stereotype people.
MS: One of the things that I've noticed—almost all of my mentors and role models in this genre have been women photographers. So one of my first huge influences was a woman named Elizabeth Fleming. And obviously Sally Mann is big in that space as well.
MS: And when you take those two women and even my own work, there's... Like I tend to want to take pictures that are sort of soft, I guess you would say?
MS: But in your work... I feel like you don't see as many women who photograph family that have the sort of visual aesthetic that you have, which is to me, because of the fact that you're working almost entirely in black and white and because of the fact that you're usually using a wide angle lens that it has an aesthetic that's a lot closer to street photography or sort of reportage, documentary style. There's just something about that that I find kind of interesting. I'm not exactly sure how to articulate it.
AS: Yeah, no, I see what you're saying. I'm trying to organize my thoughts because there are so many good things in there. First let me say, I love hearing a male photographer list some women as his influences or people that he appreciates. You don't hear that a lot, and you don't see a lot of men—there are some amazing men photographing their families, but there aren't a lot of them. As for my aesthetic... Yeah, it's interesting. You know, I'm not a Sally Mann fan. I don't mean personally; I don't know her.
AS: And I totally get in trouble with women photographers for this. Besides the controversy that's always there, it's a little soft and romantic for me. It's just... It's not my aesthetic. It's the thing you're saying. And I don't know what it is. I don't know if it's that I grew up with my dad's family and a family full of guys or that I grew up looking at our photo albums that are all snapshots from the black and whites from the 60s and the 70s, that my influences are like Friedlander and Winogrand. My joke is always that I am not talented enough to take pictures any particular way. I can just take them how I take them and if I'm shooting skateboarding—which I used to—or my children, I'm just taking the same picture. We went to Japan over spring break and we got back and I was so excited to finally get my film back from that trip and we're going through it. My daughter's looking at them, she goes, "They look like all your other pictures just in Japan."
AS: And I was like, "Okay, that's actually a compliment to me."
MS: Yeah, that's great.
AS: I think, yeah. I don't know how I ended up like that, but somehow that's how I take pictures and I have no interest in trying to change it or put on a style or... I don't know. It's how I see things.
AS: When I was first starting to shoot my family—and Aline is actually the one that encouraged me to do that. Let's see, I was trying to figure out how to do it and what I was trying to say. The start of it was sort of this idea called "What Do You Do All Day?" Which someone had said to me with disdain as a stay-at-home mom. And the truth is, it's a hard question to answer. I started looking at—I don't know, I was in a Stephen Shore mode at the time and he had some thing that he did with a friend where he photographed his friend every half hour for 24 hours or something like that. I thought it was hilarious. So I was like, "All right, you want to know what I do all day? Let's see." And I took a little Contax film camera with me everywhere, set a timer on my phone and took a picture every 30 minutes or something. If I showed that to you, it's less me than all the stuff you're seeing because it was sort of influenced by another photographer. But it got me going. Now in the end I didn't go with what I was shooting there because you're not always in front of... I like an individual photograph that stands alone. So when you're sitting at lunch, yeah, you can photograph your food or who you're sitting with. There's not always an amazing photograph sitting there that you can compose properly. So that's a more sort of conceptual project that is valid in its own right, I guess. But for me, I wanted... And that was kind of the thing with Charth Vader. I wanted every photograph to be a photograph I was proud of. You know, that was my first book, the first thing I really put out in the world, and I had this thing like would I be proud to show any one of these photographs to a photographer that I respected? That's where I went back to with this "what do you do all day?" Sort of robotically snapping a picture of whatever was in front of me. As a grid they look really cool, but I wanted pictures to stand alone. But it got me going, it got me photographing what I was doing and who I was with and all of that, which led into, "Okay, now I can see how I could take my kind of pictures of what I do all day."
MS: Yeah. There were like 10 things that I thought, "Oh, that's interesting," in what you were just saying. Something to me that I always—and I'm sure you as you know, photographers love to argue about stuff.
AS: Oh yeah. That's what Facebook is for.
MS: [laughs] But there was a thing that you just said, [that] you want to make images that stand on their own.
MS: Which I find a really interesting proposition, especially considering that you're also someone who's very interested in books. One of the things about the book format obviously is that it is something that, really every image isn't just itself, it's part of a bigger whole. You know what I mean?
AS: Yes, I do, but I am not a fan of filler. So when I was first working on Charth Vader, I got David Carol to help me, and this is how we ended up creating Peanut Press. I'm sort of self-publishing this book and we're like, "Let's make a name. [laughs] Sounds like a business. Peanut Press. Okay." We went—do you know Red Hook Editions?
AS: Jason Eskenazi was doing a sort of round-table crit thing for a book they were publishing. What book was it? We All We Got. Okay. And they just had a dummy and it was amazing people. I think it was Donna Ferrato there, Ken Schles, Jason, who is one of my favorite living photographers. And it was so democratic. They're just going around making comments. "Oh, that number's off center. Let's move that here." Circling things. "What about putting this over here?" It's just a bunch of people saying what they think. And, you know, I was a little intimidated in that crowd and Ken Schles looked at me and he said, "What's your book about?" And I was like, "Uh..." And he goes, "Oh, you need to work on your elevator pitch." And I went home—because I didn't want to say "It's about my kid in a Darth Vader helmet." That I think reduces it, even though it's true. So as I was working on the book, the rest of the book, I sort of have this thought of like, "What if I showed it to these people that I really respect, whose work I respect and are great people." And, David and I were editing and sequencing the book and there were one or two that I actually thought, "Oh, I wouldn't to want to show Jason that picture." I had the luxury, because it's a small book that's—you can only look at so many Charth Vader pictures before you're just telling the same joke over and over, you know? So I thought I was done and then I looked at these and there were a couple of them that I was just like, "I don't know that I'd want to stand next to that and say this represents me, this one photograph represents me as a photographer." But there were so many in there I was proud of. So I just kept working and took longer on the book and eventually managed to do it. And so that's sort of been my mantra since then, is that I want to be proud of each photograph. I don't want to feel like there's filler.
MS: Yeah. That's something that I sort of struggle with sometimes. I mean, something that for me—you know, this is the subject of many an internet debate—is whether the piece is more properly considered as the individual image or the collection of images. And I personally—you know, obviously I have great respect for people who fall on either side of that opinion. For me, I tend to see it more for my own work as the collection is more the piece rather than the individual image. But I get what you're saying, too, because you don't want to have an image in there that's just for the sake of having an image in there. It has to be doing something.
AS: Right. And I think sometimes people... I think there are two things. I think some people are just more conceptual than I am. And while I have an overarching concept, my photographs are based on my history, which is based on the family snapshot, you know? I don't know. It's just what I do. That's what David and I always say about the books we make. We just make stuff we like the way we like it. That's it. Other people can like other stuff. For me, sometimes I look at pictures that I would think of as filler and I think, "Oh, you put this in there because you've got obsessed with telling the story." I think people can get really literal in these narrative arcs, like, "Okay, I'm going to tell the story this way, it's going to start here and start here." Instead of a little bit trusting the viewer to make the leap from one photograph to another. It's not a movie. It's just not. You don't have to tell the whole thing.
MS: Right. I think the trick for me, and something that I certainly appreciate about your work is... The difficulty that I had in learning how to sequence a series or a book—I haven't published a book, but I make handmade books—was getting away from the idea of a literal narrative arc, like a chronological or a story arc—
AS: Yes! That's exactly what I'm saying.
MS: —and getting more towards an emotional arc.
MS: I do feel like, just like what you were saying, I wouldn't be able to look at your images and pick one out and say "I don't think this one goes. I don't think this is a good picture." Or at least not the ones that I've seen—I haven't obviously seen every single one of your images. But I do find that there is something that is greater than any individual image is able to bear, that the sequence of them, the flow of them, the one in relation to another, and as you move through these images, something builds that is more than is contained in any one of them.
AS: Yes. Yeah. I think you can do both. I think any photographer can aspire to both. I think if you don't have a greater story, maybe you don't have a book. You know what I mean? They should add up to more than the sum of the parts.
AS: I also think you can do that with no filler, no pictures that you're compromising on for the sake of literally chronologically telling the story. You know, I am not a great sequencer. And I say to everyone that will listen, "Don't edit and sequence your own work. Find someone you trust." And that's where I found David Carol. To me that stuff, the sequencing part is like why I hate chess.
AS: Because there's too many possibilities, and I sit there and my brain explodes. It's too stressful. And he looks at it and in his, you know, standard amount of confidence, he just goes, "Oh, I see what this is." And he has a vision of the flow, of what this is. You need someone who can look at you from outside you and go, "Here's what you're doing." And you can agree with that or not. And that doesn't mean that we've never negotiated over pictures or sequence or anything. But it really helped me get out of my head and out of any sort of literal chronology with these photographs.
MS: Yeah, it is interesting. For me it's like exactly the opposite. I'm willing to take a lot of direction on any individual image, but to me, I really want to have control over the sequence.
AS: Oh, that's interesting.
MS: I almost feel like I'm not necessarily trying to say anything in particular with an image, but I am trying to say something very specific with the collection.
AS: Oh, that's interesting. So you start from the outside in.
MS: No, it's funny because I think I shoot very similar to the way that you do, where I'm just sort of reacting. You know, I see something and I want to take the picture.
AS: Right, you figure it out later.
MS: Yeah. To me it doesn't mean anything in the instant, it's just something I'm sort of unconsciously drawn to. The meaning for me doesn't come out until I'm actually assembling the sequence, you know?
MS: But then what I love about all this, of course there's no one way to do it.
MS: Yeah. So, moving into the present day, your latest series Days and Years is another family-oriented series. It's great.
AS: Thank you.
MS: I saw this on Lenscratch, I don't know, a few weeks ago I think it was?
MS: And what's interesting—so first of all, just like what your child was saying, that they are very obviously your pictures.
MS: The style of them is very similar. There's definitely a through line aesthetically and I would also say emotionally from the Charth Vader series. One of the things that I think is interesting, one of the things that you have said—I believe in the artist statement for the series—is that you've referenced the saying that "all portraits are self-portraits." What's interesting to me is that when you talk about the Charth Vader series, a lot of what you're talking about is more about the portrayal of childhood itself.
MS: Whereas I feel like these pictures are less about childhood and more about parenthood, if that makes sense.
AS: Yeah. No, I think I know what you mean. Charth Vader was really me looking at my little kid where he was right then. I really went through a lot of agony, figuring out what this book was really about, specifically. I was determined for it to be "what do you do all day?" But it's not really what I do all day. It's my kids. What I do all day is I go to the dry cleaner and go to market and stuff like that. And it's none of—it didn't turn out to be the thing that I started off with. Which is fine.
MS: I actually think that that's usually where my best work comes out. [laughs]
AS: Right? When I'm not trying to think about it and make it something. I need to shoot and then look back later and see what I was thinking about. But it took me a second to let go of "what do you do all day?" and accept that it wasn't really that. And then it was like, "What is it?" So I have a friend, Lynn Melnick, who's a poet and we've collaborated together before and she is also a mom and we know each other's kids and we are close friends but also both in creative and very similar fields. It seems like the poetry world is really similar to the photo world.
MS: Yeah, I've found that.
AS: Yeah. And so we talk about our work and our overlaps. There's one time that she came over and I just spread out on every surface pictures of the kids, these pictures that I wanted to be in there as I was narrowing them down. And we're talking and at some point she said, "You know, it's not really 'what do you do all day?' It's more, 'the days are long, the years are short.'" She sort of rattled it off and it stuck in my head, and it really cemented for me that's what this is. It's the passage of time. So it's all the same stuff we do, take a family picture. It's me on spring break going "Okay guys, stand right there." Or whatever. You know, again, it's the same picture over and over [laughs] but it's over the years. And especially this is coming out now as my oldest is about to go to college, there's something in it for me. It's like the end of one era of our family, of having all three kids home. It feels like the right time to put this together.
MS: Yeah. I think one of the things that really resonated with me about this series is that my own family work is very much about the mixed emotions of parenting. It was something that actually Aline helped me with, but when I first started shooting this series it took me about six or seven years to finish the series that I had. And when I started I thought that the point of the pictures was to portray something about the lives of my children and she was the one that really helped me figure out that, no, actually I'm trying to portray something about my own experience as a parent.
AS: Yeah. I think there's no way we can photograph our children without photographing how we feel about our children.
MS: Yeah, exactly. It's a weird thing because in the moment you might be just deliriously happy or you might be, you know, like the kind of thing where your kids are setting your teeth on edge and you kind of want to strangle them.
AS: Right, right.
MS: But for me, no matter where on that spectrum of emotion I am, there's always this little piece in the back of my mind that's like, "This is going to be over so soon."
AS: Oh, and just wait until someone goes to college.
AS: I'm feeling every second of this summer.
AS: It's crazy. It starts going so fast.
AS: So as much as when they're young, you're tired, you think, "How can you through this next week?" Once they're 17, 18, you're thinking, "Oh, it's almost August, then we're going to take her to school." It's nuts.
MS: Yeah. Another thing in this series, in the artist statement, one of the things you're talking about is how—and I think this is both whether family, especially when photographed by women, is considered by the art world to be an acceptable, appropriate topic of art. But then also how our society just culturally in general doesn't value the contributions of, well, of women in general, but especially of mothers. And you know, this is something that I am always very interested in, women artists' experiences of these things. Because something that I've noticed—and again, beforehand we were talking about the Medium Festival and portfolio reviews and stuff like that—lately when I do portfolio views there... It's kind of always been this way, but especially lately when I do a portfolio review and I show my family work, I get a really strong response from—especially from women, I've noticed, not as much from men—of like, "Wow, it's so refreshing to see a man doing tender images of his family and thinking about these things and what a great dad you must be." And it's like when you go to the grocery store. If I go to the grocery store and I've got two of my kids with me, not even all three, almost invariably some old woman will stop me and say, "Oh, what a great guy. Look at you, dad, doing your thing."
MS: And so far—
MS: —none of the women that I've talked to who make work about family have ever said they get anything like that. They always get exactly the opposite. But I just wanted to see [laughs] where you were on that.
AS: Yes. Where to begin.
AS: Well, for one thing, I have literally never been congratulated for taking my kids to the market.
MS: Yeah. [laughs]
AS: [laughs] No, I think there is a thing in our society where men get congratulated for participating and women are expected to.
AS: I think on top of that in photography, which was sort of started by white men, the topics that were important to those men become the topics that are considered important, hard-hitting, gritty, whatever. And that's all great. But photographing your family and personal work has never been part of that. You know, off the top of my head I think of conflict photography and social documentary and this sort of colonial idea of photographing other cultures or other people. And I think—I'm completely generalizing—women and people who identify as think differently and are thinking about more personal work. I love personal work because I'm basically kind of nosy and if you let me, I will ask you a million questions about you and find out your life story. If you take the pictures, you've just done the work for me. I love seeing people tell me about their lives, especially when they're different than mine. So it's a thing for me. You know, Robert Frank photographed his kids, Lee Friedlander has a massive book about his family. No one calls either of them a momtographer.
AS: You have to know this word is—I have such a problem with it because it's so dismissive.
MS: Or an MWAC?
AS: Yeah, it's so dismissive. No one means it is a compliment. It doesn't say "Your work is really important and is changing the world," whatever. It's so dismissive. And so my book is called The Days and Years and I started this Instagram called The Days and Years Project, where I'm trying to give a voice to people who photograph their kids, anyone who photographs their kids. The idea is that there's some really amazing, beautiful, heavy duty, serious photography that can be about children, that that's a legitimate topic. I can't tell you how much it gets dismissed.
MS: I just think if art is supposed to be about life and about the experiences of life, and connecting and things like that, if it's a conversation, why wouldn't the most important—family is one of the most important parts of any of our lives, so why would that be off limits as a subject of art?
AS: Absolutely. And if you don't have kids, show me your friends, show me you, show me what you do. I'm so interested in people and their actual lives, and I think if we shared that more, we'd all be better off. I mean, look, I made a book about my visually impaired kid and a lot of people related to it who don't have a visually impaired kid. You know, in this political climate, I think it's nice to find things that we agree on, that we have in common, that we can relate to about each other's lives. Especially when you see something you relate to in someone whose life is so different than yours.
MS: Yeah. Yeah.
AS: I don't know. In a sort of unicorns and rainbows way, maybe that could change the world more than pictures of gore.
MS: Yeah. Yeah.
AS: I mean, that's important too.
MS: Well, yeah, I don't know. Sometimes I wonder whether or not art can change the world, but in my good moments I hope it can.
MS: Yeah. Yeah.
AS: I don't know if Charth Vader is going to change the world but, you know, [laughs] it's all I got.
MS: Yeah. Why don't we take a quick little break and then we'll come back and do the second segment.
Mike Sakasegawa: Okay, so for the second segment, I always invite the guest to bring a topic of their own, which could be anything you'd like to talk about, whatever it happens to be on your mind. So what would you like to talk about today?
Ashly Stohl: Why don't we talk about very controversial, New York versus LA.
MS: [deep breath] Alright. [laughs]
AS: Are you ready for it?
MS: Well, you know, I am and I'm not.
MS: I find these things can get a little spicy sometimes. [laughs]
AS: I like spicy.
MS: Yeah. I just got back from spending time with some of my college friends, one of whom is a native of Brooklyn, New York.
AS: Oh, okay.
MS: And, uh, when we were in college—I'm originally from Northern California, but have lived in Southern California now since I started college in the late 90s. And the two of us would mix it up from time to time in this sort of coastal rivalry stuff.
MS: But I'm interested to hear your thoughts on this.
AS: Well, I was raised by my grandparents, who are both from Brooklyn, but I was raised by them in Los Angeles. They left Brooklyn in the 40s and never looked back. They maybe went back once or twice for a wedding or something. They came out here and built a house with a pool and lived a California life and loved it, you know. Their lives in New York were obviously hard, but I grew up as an LA girl, but with my grandfather talking funny, like a New Yorker. We'd always argue about "yoomin."
AS: I'd be like, "Say H-U-M-A-N." He'd go "yoomin." "No, that's not how you say it." But then in college I went to New York, as an adult I've gone to New York, and I go there and there's some vibe there that feels familiar to me and feels right. I just love it. We live in Los Angeles, I have a little tiny place in New York because I'm there so much—I call it my closet—and I love them both. When I come home from New York, I'm happy to be in LA and have a lemon tree and let the dog out. When I'm in New York I love all the energy and all the people and it's a different sort of mindset and attitude and... I don't know. I love them both. But I'm a Dodgers fan, for the record.
MS: [laughs] Well, I mean, that's got Brooklyn roots too, right?
AS: That's right it does.
MS: [laughs] I think you might be in the extremely small minority of people I've ever talked to that actually have an appreciation for both. It seems like most West Coast, East Coast people tend to fall on one side or the other. And I find that particularly true with Angelenos and New Yorkers.
AS: Oh yeah. Although we could have a whole other conversation about the Bay Area versus LA.
MS: Well yeah.
AS: That's a different day.
MS: That is a whole thing. I mean, it's funny now that I've lived in, I would actually say three different parts of the state, because San Diego has also kind of got a chip on its shoulder about LA.
AS: Does it?
MS: Oh yeah. San Diego is very separate from LA culturally.
AS: See, LA just sits here being LA and it doesn't know anyone's mad at it.
AS: I went to college in Santa Barbara—
AS: —which is basically LA, and all these people from the Bay Area came there and I had no idea that they had grown up being groomed to hate LA. I just never thought about San Francisco.
MS: It is a real thing. I didn't grow up in San Francisco, I was a little south of there, but we still got a lot of that. It's funny because that kind of dynamic was more about—like, you know, growing up as a Californian, I just sort of thought, "Well, this is just normal,” and I didn't spend a lot of time thinking about other places. But I do find there's this weird thing that I feel like happens—it's not just New Yorkers, it can be other people too—but especially New Yorkers tend to be kind of vocal about it where they'll—
MS: —for some reason want to talk to me about why California sucks so much. And I'm just like, "What are we doing here?"
AS: [laughs] I don't know why I'm entertained by it. You know, I think you can go down the list. Like, okay, our weather's clearly better. You can't deny that. I've never shoveled snow. Their food is better. They have more types of people making food in one space. You don't have to drive two hours to Glendale to get good dim sum. It's all just right there. Better food for sure. Baseball, I don't really care that much. I grew up with the Dodgers. I like making Dodgers comments on Yankees Facebook threads only because it amuses me. There's this thing with New Yorkers, this mindset that something is empirically right or wrong, like an opinion is right or wrong, and I find it entertaining.
AS: Like you're wrong for liking the Dodgers.
MS: It's uh... It's certainly a more mature and perhaps healthy mindset to be able to be amused by it all. [laughs]
AS: [laughs] But I also like cities. I like a busy city. I took my daughter... A couple of years ago for her Bat Mitzvah gift was a trip to Italy and we were in the countryside and it was beautiful and wonderful, and we went to Venice in August where it's oppressively hot and just crammed with people and she hated it. And I got there and I was like, "Ooh, people. Stuff to do." You know, some people get charged up by a city. I think I'm one of those people.
MS: It's interesting because where I grew up was not rural in the sense of farms and stuff but, you know, it was a pretty small town.
AS: Where'd you grow up?
MS: I grew up outside of Carmel—
AS: Oh, yeah.
MS: —up in Northern California. Although we wouldn't have called it Northern California. To people in that area “Northern California” means like Humboldt County and north of there.
MS: But it is kind of interesting, to somebody from where I'm from, LA is absolutely a gigantic city, a big, busy, bustling energy kind of city.
AS: Oh, that's interesting.
MS: Yeah, it is all a sort of a matter of perspective. I mean I grew up in Steinbeck Country, right?
MS: And for a little while we lived in a cabin in Big Sur, so it was—
AS: Oh, wild.
MS: —pretty different from what life is like down here, for sure.
AS: Yeah. LA is just really like a collection of suburbs.
AS: So to me it doesn't have that centralized hustle and bustle. What's interesting as a photographer is if you bring a New York street photographer here, they're going "Where are all the people?” There's no one on the sidewalk to photograph. You don't get that crush of people that you get in Manhattan.
MS: Yeah. I mean, maybe it's just what I do when I come up to LA, and maybe this is why a lot of the street photography in LA seems to be sort of more centered around the beach communities and things like that, because you do get a lot of people there.
AS: Yes, you can go down to Venice Beach and get a lot of people. Maybe lunch time downtown, sometimes, you can get a lot of people. But if I'm just in my neighborhood and I go down to where the stores are, there's not a lot going on. You'd be very conspicuous if you held up a camera. And then you also have the weird thing of celebrity culture and the paparazzi around here where it's a little more off-putting to people if you're taking their picture. You know, in New York there's so many tourists and who knows what's going on. Everyone's taking a picture of everything. You can be a little more anonymous. In LA, or at least in West LA, it's a weirder thing to take someone's picture.
MS: Hmm. I mean it is sort of an interesting thing to think about. I guess it's not necessarily that crazy an idea to suggest that someone's geography influences their culture and therefore influences what kind of art they might make.
AS: Sure. And their visual style. I mean, what have you been looking at your whole life?
MS: I think one thing that I find can be a little off-putting about, uh, about New Yorkers and East Coast people in general is the suggestion that the West Coast in general and LA in specific just is completely without culture.
AS: I agree. But only people who grew up here say that because to me—I don't know about you—there's two layers of LA. Like I'm still friends with the people I went to high school with because I live just a couple miles from the high school I went to, I live around the corner from the elementary school I went to. I'm still here, so I see my friends' parents in the market. It's like any small town. And then there's all the people that moved here to be famous and the plastic surgery and the gross things of LA and the people coming to be someone and all of that. And that I don't relate to at all.
MS: I would imagine New York has that same thing though, don't you think?
AS: I think New York is more—I think there are two things. I think New York is more accepting of that because everyone's a transplant from New York, right? There's no more native people in New York. So everyone came from somewhere. It has that long history of people moving to New York, and then also what are they moving to New York for? They're not moving to New York for the paparazzi to take their picture at the Malibu Country Mart. You know what I mean? It's seen as a less super—it is a less superficial thing, most reasons that people move to New York.
MS: Hm. All right. [laughs]
AS: I don't know. In my opinion. If you're moving to New York for Broadway, which is the closest thing I can think of, you're going to work hard and statistically probably not be famous. So you're going there because you want to do... You know, there's such a long history of the arts in New York. You're going there because you really want to do this, which I respect more than anything. I have respect for someone who acts. It's just the people that come to LA, I swear I think there's a layer that just want to be famous.
MS: Yeah, that's a good point. I mean there is sort of a difference between people who want to be in film and television because they enjoy the craft of it and the people who are doing it because they want the exposure. So yeah. Okay.
AS: Yeah. And you meet people in the industry and in my head there becomes a difference between people who no matter how famous they are, really see acting as their job and they are a fully realized human being and that's their job. And then there are people who spend their full time being a persona. And that's just not something I have time for.
AS: I'm with the New York camp on this.
MS: [laughing] Okay.
AS: But that said, look, I love where I grew up. It's sunny, it's near the beach. I have my supermarket, I have my routines and it's beautiful.
MS: Mm, well...
AS: And we know to say "human" correctly.
MS: [laughs] Uh, I'm kind of wondering how many of my listeners will remain unoffended by this part of the conversation. [laughs]
AS: [laughs] I hope that everyone is offended by at least one half of this part of the conversation.
AS: And I say that with love.
MS: Yeah. Well, so there's usually one question that I like to wrap up with.
MS: And that is if there is a piece of art or literature or just creativity in any form that you've experienced recently that meant something to you.
AS: Oh. Okay. It's not incredibly recently, but Lee Freelander has been churning out books like no one's business because he just has so much work. And he put out this book called Family in the Picture and it's—that is actually chronological. And I look through it like I was looking through one of my own family's photo albums. You know, you look at all the captions and you start to get to know the characters, you start to get to know what's happening with each of them. It's a massive book. And this is when I was sort of in the beginning stages of making my most recent book. I looked through the entire thing and I said to myself, "If my entire career could sum up to this one book, I'd be fine." I'd be super satisfied with that. And yeah, I think that's it. I think that's the thing I related to the most, and it meant a lot to me. I kept going back to it in the creation of this book. Days and Years.
MS: It's great to have something to sort of provide some kind of a template, you know, even if it's not exactly a template, but you know, it's something to sort of aspire towards or reach towards.
AS: I think so. And look, he's got like a trillion books out and a ton of work and I don't need to be that. I don't need to be anyone. But it just gave me this thing. It's like... It was someone who was well respected, also a man photographing his family, in a visual style that I relate to. I don't know, that book really hit me even though it's probably just another one for him. You know.
MS: [laughs] Yeah. He does have an awful lot of books.
AS: [laughs] He does, he does. We actually print with the same company, Meridian, in Providence. And I keep telling the guys at Meridian my goal is to schedule to print a book at the same time as him, so we can just hang out in the conference room.
AS: Which I don't think will ever happen, but that is my low-key stalking of Lee Friedlander.
MS: [laughs] All right. Well, that's great. I'll put a link in the show notes for that. Well, hey, thank you so much for talking with me. I really enjoyed our conversation.
AS: Thank you so much for asking me. I really appreciate it.
Mike Sakasegawa: OK, once again, Ashly’s latest photobook is called Days & Years, and it is available now from Peanut Press. You can find Ashly’s website at ashlystohl.com, you can follow her on Instagram at @ashlyleostohl, and you can follow the Days & Years Project on Instagram at @thedaysandyearsproject. There are links to all of those in the show notes.
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