Ashley Kolodner likes doing things that matter. The Brooklyn-based photographer had always been passionate about art and activism, but it wasn’t until she (and her pit bull, Billie Holiday) landed in New York that she found a project that truly melded her two loves. In a bathtub, on a sud-splashed scrap of paper, “GAYFACE” was born.
“GAYFACE: 1st Class” is an engaging photo series showcasing the diverse spectrum of humans that make up the LGBTQ community. Each photo is a diptych portrait featuring a member of the community against a patterned background. Subjects choose their background and their poses; the only requirement is that for the left half, they have the eyes closed, and for the right half, their eyes are open.
What results is a fascinating spectrum of human beings, each fiercely individual and captured by Kolodner with incredible empathy and intimacy. The pairing of images showcases the subjects’ vulnerability while also capturing their pride and self-confidence, juxtaposing the face they present to the world with the soul that lies within. Kolodner sat down with Resource to talk about childhood ice cream masterpieces, the inspirational power of bubble baths and what it means to be LGBTQ in the 21st century. (Hint: Much like the T.I. song, it can mean whatever you like.)
How did you get started with photography? What is your first memory of a photograph or camera?
As a kid I remember always doing art. My mother tells me a story of when I was two and was drawing while eating ice cream in the kitchen. My mother left for just a second, and when she came back I had hung all my drawings up on the wall using the ice cream as the adhesive, wanting to show my mom everything I did. I remember having my mom take photos of me as a kid, and I would always want to take photos, too. My first cameras were the disposable ones, starting when I was maybe six years old. I got my first 35mm camera around the age of twelve. At the time I was doing other art forms like painting and drawing and using that Sculpey clay, but I loved being able to see something and capture it right then and there and then wait for the film to be developed to see what I would get.
Seventh grade was the first time that I was truly opened to the world of photography, in a black and white film class at my school. We started with the pinhole camera, which I fell in love with! I found it so fascinating that with an oatmeal box, a hole and some paper you could create images. The dark room was one of my favorite places to be, and I loved seeing the images slowly appear in the developer. And the rest was a constant interest in what cameras could do, how you could use photos combined with my painting and drawing. I loved being able to create a scene in my head and go out with my friends and paint their faces or just find a cool location to shoot. I loved being able to have those moments captured as they were. Also, my father had a few photography books that I used to look at. My favorite was, and still are, Irving Penn’s photographs. He is so inspiring to me.
There was one photograph I grew up looking at quite a lot that I love. My father hung it in the hall. It is an Irving Penn original from a cigarette/trash series he did. It is a photograph of an old glove, and I remember looking at this photo being amazed that it was a photo and not a drawing. And how it really made you stop and think about this glove and wonder where it came from and how this piece of trash had, in my eyes, been turned into something beautiful.
Also, from a very small age my mom would take me to get my portrait taken, and I can still remember looking at all the gray cove walls. I remember wondering why on earth would the walls be rounded at the bottom and how it would make for a great rollerblading room. It’s funny remembering that now, since it was much later on that I learned how amazing a photography cove truly is.
You’re originally from DC and have travelled all over the country. How did you land in Brooklyn? Do you have plans to move on somewhere else?
Yes, I am originally from DC; I love it there. I ended up going to Brooks Institute of Photography out in Santa Barbara, CA and ended up staying in Cali for about six years. I did some work in LA and San Diego, but the east coast seemed to call me back. I have always loved NYC; I grew up coming up here all the time because my older brother and sister lived in Brooklyn. I also found that the photography work in NYC was just a better match for me, and I love the humans in NYC. There feels like there is a lot more conceptual art going on in NYC versus LA, which I really enjoy. I currently have no plans on moving anywhere else anytime soon but you never know where life will take you, right?
In addition to photography, you’ve worked in mixed media, painting, ceramics, glass blowing, and even music. How do those genres influence your photography?
I love exploring all types of art, and I’ve found that it all kind of synchs together in my brain. With each type of art form I find inspiration through my processes with each medium. As long as I’m exercising my creative mind, it spills over into my different forms and helps each one grow synergistically. Also, starting with drawing and painting, I started to understand composition and what visual my eye seems to enjoy. I believe that has added to my confidence just being an artist in general. Each form helps fuel the other.
There is rhythm and movement and life within all art forms, and capturing the emotion or making someone feel something or being able to get through my own struggles through art is really where my heart lies.
Why do you enjoy shooting portraits? In your eyes, what is the relationship between the subject and the photographer?
I find humans amazingly interesting. There is a moment when taking a picture that is very intimate between the subject and photographer which I find beautiful. I find that through a portrait you can see a side of the human that might not always show, and a little bit of the photographer through the interaction too. I find the relationship between the model and photographer to be many things: trust, empowerment (for the subject), intimacy, being in a certain place with a certain energy and being able to capture that. I love portraits that show the grit and details as well as images that are beautiful, and I love to tell stories through my art. And humans all have their own story. Sometimes living in a place like NYC I look out over the water, and its crazy to think how many humans live here and each has such a unique story to be told. And I find a picture is just a small piece of that story.
How did the “GAYFACE” project come about? Where did the concept come from?
In early 2011, I was having a brain storming session with myself, which I like to do now and again to think of projects that don’t have anything to do with my work or (at the time) school. It started like any brainstorming session: I taped up a bunch of blank paper around the walls of my bathtub and ran a bubble bath. I like to let my mind wander, and then ideas start to emerge from my thoughts. I start to draw boxes with simple drawings of figures or the composition or ideas for series and then draw out how I would want each one to look or the ideas behind it. It just so happened on this day I thought about my eyes being closed and just how simply we open and close our eyes—sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously. I drew a little sketch of a figure with their eyes closed and then eyes opened. Something about this struck me as so simple, but held such power. I continued with my brainstorming and different ideas I would love to photograph or do a multimedia piece about, but I kept coming back to eyes closed/eyes opened. I decided to photograph two of my very good friends who are both gay, and just that alone sparked this idea. How powerful it was to see their images and know their struggle and how their eyes are open to the world and to who they are. And “GAYFACE: 1st CLASS” was born.
The word “GAYFACE” is sometimes known to have negative connotations, I know. But I want to reclaim the word, dissolve the negativity and turn it around on this society. Open humans up and expose humans’ brains to what is really out there. As well as “gay” has been (and still is being) used in a negative way, so I wanted to find a series name that would catch your attention as well as maybe jump start humans’ brains on the topic and make one think. And the “1st Class” part is because I am done being a second-class citizen, and I know many of the LGBTQ community feel the same way, too. No human should be second-class, right?
Do you approach your subjects or do they seek you out?
Both. I started out by reaching out to everyone I know in the LGBTQ community and trying to get them to come to my studio to shoot in Brooklyn. And then ask them to also tell their friends. I also posted ads on Craigslist asking if anyone was interested. As I’ve begun to shoot more, it seems as though the word is slowly spreading, because now I’m still reaching out to everyone, but more and more humans are reaching out to me. They’re asking when am I coming to their city or how can they get photographed. It’s amazing!
Walk me through the process for one of these shoots. Do you tend to do one at a time or several in a day? How do people choose their backgrounds, poses, etc.?
I normally will do several in a day. I will block out a time and let humans know when the shoot is going on and if they can drop in at any time. With any location, we have a section set up for the shoot itself, and another station for the background papers, which are all hand made, and a model release section. When someone shows up, I (or one of my assistants) greet them and walk them through the process. First, they are asked to choose a paper; They can choose any one that they like or they think goes with their outfit, or if there’s some animal print or design that they love they choose it. It’s cool to see how excited someone will get about their paper. Then, we tape up the paper in front of my lights, and we start to shoot. We start with the eyes closed first and then do eyes open. The individuals choose how they want to pose; I tell them they can smile, they can be serious, they can do whatever they feel comfortable with—the image is about them. The shoot itself only takes about seven minutes per human. So it is really a short amount of time; there isn’t too much time for them to truly think about how they want to stand or pose. It’s purely the energy they are bringing at that moment. After they are photographed, they can take their paper home with them, and then they are asked to sign a model release. I have so much fun on the shoots; I have gotten to meet so many amazing humans, and there is always so much laughter. We also try to have snacks and drinks and to encourage everyone to stay and hang out and mingle. It creates an incredible environment. And I love connecting humans and seeing the interactions!
What have people’s reactions been to the photographs? Has it been what you expected or not at all?
Humans’ reactions have been amazing and so supportive. I was not expecting any kind of reaction like the one I have gotten so far. I just started this as a project for myself, and it turned into something much bigger than me. It actually got very overwhelming when the first article was written about it, by The Advocate. And then there was a stream of emails that started asking me questions and wanted to publish stories with and about my images. None of this has been expected at all, and it has been a great feeling to know that this has and is affecting humans in a positive way. I am also amazed by how many people are asking me to come to their cities to photograph; it’s like people need the chance to be seen. I am very grateful for everything that this project has brought into my life.
What do you hope people get out of these photographs? From viewing them? From posing for them?
Actually, I’m glad you asked, because it is something I have been thinking a lot about, and I’ve actually come up with a mission statement that I think covers my goals, for viewer and subject. The mission of “GAYFACE: 1st Class” is to use photographic portraiture to empower the subject and transform the perspective of the viewer. Every person who becomes involved with the series (by modeling, viewing or otherwise) is challenged to see the LGBTQ community in a new way. “GAYFACE” unites and empowers the full-spectrum LGBTQ community and our allies, bringing us access to a first class existence after decades in the dark.
I hope that humans might feel safe, or a sense of freedom, or open their eyes to the community differently. Maybe that means helping someone who hasn’t openly come out to be able to see these images and feel some comfort. I want humans to be able to connect and open up a dialogue, show the faces that are all-too-often considered second-class citizens, but that are just as good as everyone else! I hope that when humans pose they feel some sort of pride, and like they’re part of something that will help others. I hope they feel a sense of empowerment and community. Unity. Love. Activism.
Tell me about your Kickstarter campaign. What has that process been like?
My team and I are still in the process of getting everything together, in fact; it is a long process and something we have no interest in rushing. We’ve filmed and are currently on the second edit of our promo video, which will be awesome! And we’re gathering contacts and connections, reaching out and trying to get all of our ducks in line before we launch so we are ready for the crunch time of the campaign itself. We are aiming high, so I want everything to be just perfect so we have the best chance to succeed—measure twice, cut once, ya know? But I was not aware of how much work really goes into these Kickstarters, especially when it’s something you care so much about. Also, it is HARD to ask for money, for help doing something you believe in. So if I can, I encourage you all to be generous with us, and share with the people you know would care about this project. I mean, anyone could drop fifty to a hundred bucks on a date: Why not contribute to “GAYFACE” and stay in one night, eh?
We are starting to figure out venues for photoshoots, and for fundraising events, so we are open to your tips on that, too! We are still reaching out to so many humans; it is amazing how much work truly goes into making a dream a reality. But there’s no doubt in our minds: we are doing this.
Do you feel the LGBTQ community has made significant strides to break down barriers and stereotypes in recent years? What kind of work remains to be done?
I think steps are constantly being made to break down barriers, but it is a slow process just like any other civil rights issue. Of course, everything I see is from the perspective of an artist in New York, which is why we need to get out into the country and get other faces and stories, too.
I do find that I’ve noticed in fashion there has been a lot of the more androgynous going on, which I find really interesting. Though it is hard to tell if it is just a media fad, or an actual development. Stereotypes can be totally ridiculous still, which is why we want to represent and seek out humans from every demographic: young and old, different ethnic backgrounds, aesthetics, gender identities… I mean, just the other day I got to have a discussion on HuffPost Live with some other queer femmes about the idea that lesbians can’t be pretty and femme. That’s so not true, and I have photographic evidence!
I think there is so much work still to be done, not just from going from second-class to first-class citizens but also from not hearing the word gay thrown around in a negative sense—even on the TV, you hear it still. There is always work to be done and I think it comes in all forms, but exposure and education I think are the best ways to break down barriers. Because barriers are put up out of fear, and humans are typically scared of the unknown. Also, I think that for the younger generations to come, I think it’s important for them to be exposed so that kids growing up can feel safe being whoever they want to be and not be afraid of being made fun of or attacked.
What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about the LGBTQ community?
You know what, I don’t know. I think that that is a tricky question, because it really depends on the individual and their circumstances. I don’t know if you can generalize the whole misconception of the whole community. I’ve found that there are so many misconceptions, and I’m still learning of more that I wasn’t even aware of. It is amazing what the human race is capable of coming up with.
I have to say, the group is too diverse and heterogeneous to say there is one thing that could be misconstrued across the board. I mean, the thing that binds us together is that we are not identifying with mass conceptions and assignments of heterosexuality, binary gender and patriarchy. What does a closeted lesbian immigrant woman in El Paso have in common with a wealthy cis-gender gay man in Minneapolis or a transgender Chinese performance artist in NYC except that they don’t “fit in the box?” Maybe the biggest misconception about the LGBTQ community is that there could be only one.
You can follow the GAYFACE project on Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest, Twitter and Flickr. For any and all inquiries about participating or contributing, please email Ashley Kolodner at firstname.lastname@example.org.