Being in the Right Place at the Right Time, with Eyes Wide Open

Whether traversing the streets of New York City or perched above a Broadway stage, Ashley Garrett ’76, TR is always looking for the next great photograph. Her life-long love for photography manifests in her extensive and beautiful portfolio, which embodies her mentality that a great photo can be taken anytime and anywhere.

Ashley has been shooting photos since she was ten years old. “Somebody gave me a Kodak Instamatic 44 when I was ten and I started taking photographs from then on,” said Ashley. “For most of my life, I took photos of everything, but the photos I liked taking the most were always of other people.”

Ashley’s passion for photography continued after her girls were born, having her camera at all of their school events. It was at the same school where she took her passion and turned it into a career. “Both of my kids attended The Brearley School in New York and I was always there taking photos. Eventually, I was hired to work for the school and photographed their drama, dance, and music performances as well as every athletic event.”

“I spent twenty years perfecting my craft by taking pictures of students, parents, and teachers,” continued Ashley. “They got used to me always being there with my camera and stopped paying attention to me. I took the portraits of all the teachers who were retiring each year, which was a lot of fun. After my children graduated, the school asked me to create a retrospective and choose 100 photos to show my work from the last twenty years. Looking at my early work and comparing it to more recent photos showed me the importance of practicing my craft. I was so much better at getting both the background and the lighting right in my later images.”

Ashley’s work as the school photographer was not her first career. “As I was taking photos at my daughters’ school I was managing a soup kitchen as my day job. It was a big job, and after I retired, I was looking for something to do,” explained Ashley. “My husband suggested that I take a photography class, so I began taking classes at PhotoUno Photography School, beginning with Photography I and then Photography II. I really hit it off with the teacher who taught Photography II, and she began to work with me one-on-one and became my mentor.”

“I got new cameras and lenses, and then started to get different jobs,” continued Ashley. “One of my first real jobs was with a theater company. I happened to meet someone who was in the show, whose husband was the director. She recommended that I attend one of the rehearsals and take some photos of the entire cast. That was over ten years ago, and now I am their resident photographer. I began to do a ton of theater production shoots, which brought me full circle, since I majored in theater in college.”

“My biggest wish is to give somebody a photograph of themselves that they actually like, will want to use, and to make sure they enjoy the experience of being photographed. I know that many people, including me, do not like having their photographs taken,” said Ashley. “My mission is to get people to enjoy the time we spend together and get a photograph at the end that they will love.”

“During the pandemic, I decided that I wanted to become a better dance photographer,” Ashley described while reflecting on this photograph. “I am good with people and good with the theater but wanted to work harder to improve my dance photography. I have a few mentors, and one helped me rent a great studio, which I use all the time now. Because all of my theater work was canceled during the pandemic, I had time to work with a mentor on my dance photography, which has translated into more dance companies hiring me to do their production photos.”

This photograph is one of Ashley’s favorites. She has given it multiple names over the years: Born to Ride, Cycle Chic, Keep Calm and Ride On. “I am the kind of person who likes to take pictures of anything and everything, but I think my biggest strength is taking pictures of people. My goal is to be in the right place at the right time and to be ready when a photo shows itself. The thing I like most about this photograph is that the van matches her perfectly. I was waiting for a cab and had my cell phone, which is not always great, but is ok in the moment. In the space of five minutes, I saw her, a couple getting engaged, two huge dogs being walked, and two kids being towed behind a bicyclist. In such a small timeframe, I saw four amazing things happening right in this little area on Madison Avenue and was able to photograph all of them, but she (the bicyclist) was dying to be photographed. She was great but the fact that the van was there made the shot perfect.”

Ashley looks for inspiration everywhere. “I was in the back of a cab, and the driver had two tiny boxing gloves hanging from his rear-view mirror. He was from Tajikistan, and we had a great conversation about what it was like to be from there and move to the United States and the photograph of those gloves has been one of my most commented and beloved photos. I still debate about which photographs I should choose and show. On Instagram, just recently, I posted my 2022 favorite people, places, and things. It takes me a really long time to choose the photographs so that they are cohesive and work well together. There are a lot of things that get left on the table, even though I really like them. It is very hard to select your own work to show to others.”

Ashley has benefitted in having a group of mentors who give her inspiration. “Joe McNally, who is an amazing photographer and who is now my good friend, is one of my mentors. He has been photographing for a long time. He has photographed five Olympics as well as ‘Faces of Ground Zero, Portraits of the Heroes of September 11, 2001.’ These amazing, life-sized Polaroids capture everyday people in a historic moment. I get inspiration from him. It is great to have mentors who share little tips, but I think just being out there, with your eyes wide open and looking, brings inspiration to me.”

When asked where the best photo op was on George School’s campus, Ashley excitedly described many places. “I think that George School has so many wonderful places,” she said. “The meetinghouse, South Lawn, those stone steps near Sunnybanke, the graduation spot [William Penn Outdoor Auditorium], the front steps of Main, that drive into campus past Brown House—actually, anywhere with people on George School’s campus, no matter where you are, is beautiful. People are what make George School, and in my opinion, are what make great photos.”

Ashley’s work with photography has given her an outlet to give back to her community. “I am on the board of a school for kids with autism and they offer enrichment programs. One semester, they asked me to teach photography to five students. It was a blast. My class ran eight weeks, and then for the next few months, I taught a group of high schoolers. Now, I teach the entire student body, even those who are non-verbal. It is challenging because I am not an autism expert, but it has been really amazing. Photography is a great way for people to communicate. It is incredible to see students speak through their photography.”


You can check out more of Ashley’s incredible photos on her Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/ashleygarrettphoto/.