When Penny Ashford moved with her husband Ted to his hometown of Wilmington 24 years ago, she was a sought-after interior decorator with clients up and down the east coast. Despite that success, her passion continued to steer her toward photography.
But it was a moving and memorable journey to Ethiopia with Save the Children 10 years ago that ultimately inspired Ashford to rethink her professional objectives and pursue a dream of becoming a professional photographer.
Ten years and countless photography workshops later, Ashford has amassed a world-class portfolio of images taken around the globe, pictures that capture people and landscapes that are increasingly being shaped by poverty and climate change.
Ashford’s work has recently been featured in galleries in New York and Richmond. And several of her photographs currently hang at New York City’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.
We recently sat down with her in-between global assignments to learn more about what she has learned in her travels and when her work might be showcased here in Delaware.
Town Square Delaware: Your most important show to date was at the Page Bond Gallery in Richmond (fall 2018): “Vanishing Ice: From the Arctic to Antarctica.” What inspired this series, and your call to action?
Penny Ashford: I was working on a coffee table book about something I am most passionate about photographing – water – and I wanted to explore another form of water – that being ice. So I was originally drawn to Antartica for the majestic icebergs without a real understanding of the climate change conversation.
I was so taken by the journey that I found my way to the North Pole on a Russian Nuclear Icebreaker the summer of 2017, where I came across two remarkable photographers/environmentalist, Paul Nicklen and Cristina Mittermier. Being introduced to the work of their nonprofit organization, Sea Legacy as well as being surrounded by the melting ice and the underweight polar bears really opened my eyes to the impact our way of life is having on the environment.
I went to Svalbard a few months ago with photographers Fredrik Granath and Melissa Schaefer to document more of the changes going on, and I was in shock with how much water versus ice that surrounded us – hence the name of this show: Vanishing Ice.
I have to admit, I was so excited to go to Svalbard because I was told I would see amazing animals and ice forms and came home very disappointed…
I am really grateful to Page Bond Gallery for giving me the space and the opportunity to help spread the word that we need to make some changes right at home in order to preserve the beauty shown in my photographs.
One little side story – while I was in Svalbard, I wanted to go see the Seed Vault, which is a depository for the world’s seeds, a Noah’s Ark, so to speak. And we were not able to go in because the permafrost that the vault was built on has begun to melt and water was seeping into the vault. It had to be shut down to stop the leaking. Just another sign of the problems in our midst.
These three journeys have inspired me to find other endangered locations like the Great Barrier Reef (last October) to photograph in the hopes of bringing about more conversation and hopefully some modification of our behavior. The Maldives are definitely next on my bucket list.
I am hoping that the sum of my works is viewed as more of a call to action – to see the beauty and understand we need to take action to preserve it. Whether to eliminate the plastics from our life that are finding their way into the ocean or to curb our carbon footprint to help ward off global warming.
TSD: I know people and places closer to home are also treasured subjects of your work. Can you tell us more about the other photographic subjects you are passionate about?
Ashford: My photography life changed in 2009 when I discovered the underwater camera. It was summertime, and I had just lost an important person in my life, and my favorite group of sisters lost their mom. We all spent a lot of time at the beach trying to heal. It was such a difficult time. Then, another friend let me borrow his underwater camera for “a week” and I kept it for six! Thank you, Ben duPont!
Those six weeks were full of such joy and laughter. I photographed all 17 members of my friends family and my own children — underwater, of course. I spent hours in the water photographing the waves, the bubbles and the motion. I discovered the healing powers of water. No shot is ever the same when you photograph water – it’s constantly moving and changing, but at the same time it’s very calming. At the end of that summer, I made a beautiful book though, “Blurb,” which I highly recommend for albums) and gave it to my friend’s dad.
It was a wonderful way to capture the importance of family, friends, laughter and love – even during hard times.
Subsequently, through the fabulous art dealer, Cade Tompkins Projects, two of my most favorite underwater images were purchased by and are on display at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital as well as Rhode Island Women’s Hospital and the headquarters of Blue Cross Blue Shield. It is humbling to be part of the Sloan Kettering collection and help just a little bit with the healing process of all those cancer patients.
TSD: When did you start to develop a professional interest in photography? And how did you study, learn, grow in that medium?
Ashford: I have always had a camera in my hand since I can remember, and I took my first photography class as a sophomore in high school at the Noble and Greenough School in Boston.
As my family grew, I took every opportunity to document them. I think I may have the most over-photographed children in the world. I have really loved capturing all their athletic games, and I have loved sharing the game photos with other families. It has brought me such joy and more importantly allowed me to be right there on the sidelines. I rarely missed an event.
With a huge push from my incredibly talented friend, Anne Patterson (@annepattersonstudio) and Janet Kermes, I began classes at the International Center for Photography in New York ten years ago, and I soon found out I didn’t know what I didn’t know! I learned so much from so many incredibly talented teachers which helped me grow, and I am constantly trying to hone my skills with different workshops. I found an incredible teacher in Carol Dragon in NYC. And more recently, I have been learning about the night skies from the gifted Nat Geo photographer, Babek Tafreshi.
I am heading out in two weeks to shoot the Geminid meteor showers in Death Valley, which is very exciting.
TSD: What is it about photography that makes it fulfilling in so many ways to you?
Ashford: Photography is my way of connecting and giving back. The connection can be to water, tranquility, community service, friends or my daughters’ actives (theater, dance, lacrosse, soccer and crew).
Photography has also been an incredible vehicle for me to travel the world. I have been to India, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Istanbul, Bodrum, Ibiza, Mallorca, as well as my Arctic journeys. And my photographs have served as a voice for service projects like Grassroots Soccer, Coaches Across the Continent, Cross-Cultural Solutions, JBFC and Save the Children.
We all have to try to give back in some form and my favorite form is definitely photography. My very first show in NYC was from my trip to Ethiopia with Save the Children. With my friend, Dorrit Morley, we raised $20,000 that went directly back to the Saving New Born Lives Clinic in Addis Ababa.
TSD: How have you established yourself in a crowded/competitive field?
Ashford: I just try to get my message out through social media – Facebook, Linked In, and most especially Instagram (@pma2412). (Website here.)
On my journey to the North Pole, Paul Nicklen of Sea Legacy and Nat Geo really pounded into me the importance of writing about my photos, which I find a bit hard. Clearly, I am a much more of a visual person than a writer, but he said I needed to incorporate something about art, love, conservation and science in each post. I have really found people respond to this, and I have also learned so much as I do research on different areas or objects that I photograph.
My two girls and some of their friends have also been the best PR agents out there.
TSD: How has your work been received?
Ashford: I’ve sold probably over 500 pieces, which is very exciting and humbling. I have had the support of some wonderful art dealers in Cade Tompkins Project, RI and NYC, Page Bond Gallery, Richmond,VA , Page Evans Art Consultant, The Antique and Artisan Gallery, Stamford, CT and Artful Living in Washington, DC, as well as great support from Tory Daily Blog and several interior design firms most notably Cullman & Kravis in NYC.
TSD: We heard you scored placement of your photography inside the Vice President’s house in DC.
Ashford: That was a very exciting moment in time for me! I was showing my work in DC with Artful Living and Page Evans came in and saw a 40’ x 60 photo on plexi taken from a pool in Turkey. She reached out to the Vice President’s office because she knew Vice President and Dr. Biden really liked to support Delaware artists and the rest is history. I was thrilled and honored to have my work hanging there.
I am so incredibly lucky to have so much support from so many friends and most importantly from my husband, Ted who is always encouraging me to step outside my comfort box and try new techniques or travel to far away places… and my two girls, the best models in the water and of course, PR agents!