Arriving in Middle Tennessee by way of Pittsburgh, then Aspen and San Francisco, our city scored when Ashley Hylbert and her husband, Scott, decided in 2004 that Nashville was the place to move and raise their family. While you may recognize Ashley’s name, as she’s been our FACES photographer for more than four years, we wanted you to get to know her better. To know her is to love her and she has a LOT going on!
Ashley, I know photography wasn’t your first career. How did you find your way to becoming a full-time photographer?
I moved to San Francisco to enter the advertising world after graduating from Ithaca College. I started as as agency receptionist — you know, didn’t we all?! — and moved my way up into account management and finally landed in publishing at Allure as their Northwest Sales Manager. In 1999, I moved back to Pittsburgh with my husband to be the director of business development at my dad’s engineering design firm.
After having a second child, I didn’t want to go back to a corporate job and the schedule that goes with it; I wanted more flexibility. I learned so much from working with my dad for five years. His work ethic, tenacity and fearlessness inspire me every day. He always says, “Get some balls!” That’s his pep talk. But I was ready for a change. My mom is a professional, self-taught photographer, so I did grow up with a darkroom in the house and carefully stepping over her internationally acclaimed prints! I also pored through our coffee table photography books growing up … that’s when I really fell in love with Helmut Newton’s work.
I started taking photos with one of my mom’s old cameras. I started photographing kids and families when film was still around. I would take photos and give people the roll of film at the end of the shoot. People would host “photo days” for me where someone would schedule a day with multiple families slotted in increments. I’d give the host their sitting for free. I was working, but it was seriously on-the-job-training—the more I learned the more I realized how much I didn’t know! I was living on a wing and a prayer and still do at times today.
What would you say your specialty is in photography?
I specialize in commercial and editorial work. That probably stems from my days in the agency and at Allure. When I started, I did everything to make money and learn. Weddings, events, kids, dogs, architecture … it was all a learning opportunity for me. I would take every job that came my way and would practice my lighting at home the night before so I wouldn’t completely screw it up the next day. Now, I can be choosier and just shoot the things I like: people, both portrait and lifestyle-type shots, and food. Food is actually about 30 percent of my business.
I just had a job at The Grove in Franklin. I was hired to be in charge of the entire production: I hired stylists and models, scheduled the flow of the day, scouted locations, created the look and then captured the client’s concept. I really, really, really like directing and would LOVE for this part of my business to grow. I want to direct commercials and music videos … who knows maybe movies one day! I’ve got the bug!
Does the celebrity factor make Nashville an easier or harder place to have a career?
Hmmm … I never thought of it that way. There is a lot of work to go around. The city is thriving. If you want to work, there is work. I’ve slowly been able to tap into the celebrity market, but it’s a process. I feel you need some lucky breaks, but it happens, and like most things, it takes hard work and patience.
I have always said when I was starting out that I will know I’ve made it when I’ve finally shot Keith Urban … well I’m still trying to make it [laughs] and that’s sooo okay! I love my job.
I just did stills for [ABC’s TV show] “Nashville,” which is where you shoot images that will be used for different scenes in future episodes. It’s funny, because I didn’t realize that was something that needed to be done! Now I find myself noticing that stuff in television shows and movies all the time. Working on the “Nashville” set is a blast and exciting as hell, but geez those people work hard — I’m shocked at the amount of effort that goes into a production like that.
Is there a photographer in town who you really admire?
Kristin Barlowe. She is my favorite. I remember seeing her work when I moved here in 2004. Her images were hanging in a salon on Belmont, and I was blown away! They were fabulous; they reminded me of Helmut Newton’s work. Words cannot describe how thrilled I am that she took the photos for this interview! Thank you to StyleBlueprint for introducing me to Kristin (during her FACES shoot)—she is AMAZING!
How do you balance work and family?
(laughing) It’s almost impossible. It may be impossible. It’s definitely not an easy thing to do. My kids [a son and daughter] always say to me, “Are you ever not working? Put the computer down!” I know that I need to be more disciplined and give them more undivided attention. The most important thing I can do as a mother is to make sure they know that I love them and that they can come talk to me about anything and I mean ANYTHING. Sex, drugs … anything. I also make a point to spend one-on-one time with each of my children. I think that staying connected with them is crucial. With the new studio, it’s all consuming and I’ve had to cut other things out of my life. I’m not very social, and I don’t volunteer at school like I once did—those days are over for me, and I’ve decided not to feel guilty about it. I’d rather go to a horror movie with my son. Okay, I’d prefer a comedy, but beggars can’t be choosers.
What is on your bedside? Any good books?
My laptop … I get in bed, edit and watch bad TV until I pass out. I don’t even pretend to read. The only time I read is on vacation, but I haven’t had one of those in awhile.
What do you do for enjoyment?
I feel most present, alive, joyful … you know, really in my skin, when I’m actually shooting pictures or exercising. I love exercise, and with age it has become less about being skinny and more about being sane. I can’t live without it.
Tell us about your new studio.
It’s really exciting! We bought a piece of property on White Avenue that used to be a doggy daycare. We got this in the Melrose/Berry Hill neighborhood a little over a year ago, before the area boomed. Our architect, Nick Dryden, has an office right across the street, and what he created for us is stunning. Yes, I know I’m bragging, but it’s true.
The concept for the space evolved from a studio for me to a studio that we could also rent to others. I am so grateful to Michael Gomez who mentored me on how to run a studio, as he owns and runs the successful Westlight Studios in Franklin. His advice and direction have been invaluable.
The idea then got bigger, as we realized it would be really cool as an event space, as well, and we could market it that way. Then we thought, “Ohhh, let’s add an apartment to rent.” And here we are with White Avenue Studio.
We’re not quite complete, but we’ve already had fashion shoots, a music label rented it for a video shoot, a production company booked the space and then booked it again immediately. We’ve had a panel discussion/debate on the confederate flag in art; 120 people were there for that. There’s already been a wedding here and a 50th birthday party.
My husband came on board as the general manager, so I pay him rent! He keeps asking for it, and I keep saying “next week I’ll pay, next week, I promise.” He’s in charge of all the bookings, insurance, contracts and sales. I’m a client of White Avenue Studio, but it’s our business. The apartment is not done yet, but will be complete by the end of the month. It will be used as a “lifestyle shooting suite” for photographers to rent, a place to stay the night for photographers or executives who are renting the studio and maybe even offered on Airbnb. We’ll see how it goes.
Favorite place in town for respite?
Radnor Lake or a run at Percy Warner Park
Favorite date night?
What’s that? Ha! Epice. I love the way it looks and the vibe. It reminds me of Aspen, and I can walk there from my house, which is also really nice.
If you could change one thing about Nashville what would it be?
I hate to say the traffic, but I live in a traffic hell corridor so that’s …. Oh, I know! I know exactly what I’d change: the public school system. So many feel the need to send their kids to magnet schools and private schools and I wish we had better options across the entire city. I’d love to see that change. I’m a hypocrite for sure—one of my kids goes to a private school and one goes to a magnet school. I’d love the day when no one had to ask at a cocktail party, “So, where do your kids go to school?” You know what I mean? I wish that whole thing was different. I wish all Nashville schools were good options and it was not some big issue.
Do you have any mantras that you lean on?
More than one! “Walk through the fear,” “don’t take it personally,” “let it go,” “breathe,” “trust your gut” and “good enough, isn’t” (but sometimes it’s ok). These are things I say to myself all the time and to my kids!
What are three things you can’t live without?
- Coffee. The most convenient coffee is always the best coffee … I’m not brand-specific.
- Ice cream. I have it every night (with my laptop in bed—so romantic). It’s usually Talenti Double Chocolate Chip or Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food.
Oh! I need to credit some people for this shoot as we did a REAL fashion shoot, with stylist Milton White and hair/makeup guru Nichole Marie Lim, jewels provided by Cindi Earl (another client I met when I shot her as a StyleBlueprint FACE!). These were all shot at my White Avenue Studio by Kristin Barlowe. Woo hoo! They made me feel like hot stuff. OMG, really? This is my life?! Pinch me!
Thank you Ashley! To learn more about White Avenue Studio visit whiteavenuestudio.com, and to learn more about Ashley, see ashleyhylbert.com
Today’s beautiful photographs were taken by Kristin Barlowe. Inquiries: [email protected]