All images by Dolly Ave. Used with permission.
As a teen growing up in Sikeston, Missouri, Dolly Ave could be found exploring her surroundings with a camera. She ventured into lesser-known urban landscapes, capturing youth culture from the inside-out. There, she found a community of artists and creatives, spending every free moment she could behind the lens. Always one for the spontaneous rather than the staged, her style developed in the streets more than in the studio. She quickly built a reputation for intimate, colorful photos with a splash of personality.
By 2017, her career had skyrocketed. At just 22 years old, she found herself amid the hustle and bustle of Downtown Los Angeles, shooting for major campaigns. Over the next four years, she would make the city her playground. In that time, she’s collaborated with leading sneaker brands, including Adidas, Nike, Converse, and Reebok. She’s also photographed the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Chance the Rapper, BhadBhabie, Ed Sheeran, and other chart-topping musicians–all before her 26th birthday earlier this month.
To top it off, Ave has recently released her own debut album, Sleep, to critical acclaim. Today, she’s a full-time photographer and musician. We asked this modern-day Renaissance woman to tell us about some of the defining moments of her creative journey. Along the way, she shared a few tips for emerging artists hoping to follow in her footsteps.
Phoblographer: What has been one of your most rewarding brand collaborations thus far, and what made it unforgettable?
Dolly Ave: The most rewarding brand collaboration of mine would have to be with Finish Line. This was the height of my career in Chicago, and this collaboration allowed me the ability to move to Los Angeles. I learned so much about sneaker culture, pop culture, and lifestyle shooting. During that time, I experimented with lighting and learned the importance of shooting on brand and charging my worth. This collaboration was one of the first times my images were seen in a store, and it provided future opportunities to shoot with larger brands.
Phoblographer: How did you first get started as a photographer?
Dolly Ave: Chicago was when I first knew I wanted to pursue photography as a career. I learned by forcing myself to shoot every single day and sharing the images on social media. With every image, I would challenge myself to work around a theme or limitation. Through practice and trial and error, I began to form my photographic style.
Phoblographer: How much creative control do you generally have when collaborating with a brand?
Dolly Ave: Fortunately, I am given a lot of creative control when collaborating with brands. This requires trust in the photographer, so I am grateful to be able to execute a concept to life. Every client is different, but the majority do come with a vision in mind that I help elaborate on.
My creative process starts with what the client needs, their goal with the images, and their deadlines. From there, I would provide multiple concepts (clothing, lighting, location) and accompany these ideas with a mood board. What inspires me varies, but generally music, art, materials, and lighting play a role in what direction we head towards. I find the best ideas come from a color scheme.
Phoblographer: What’s your favorite part of collaborating with a larger team of models, art directors, stylists, etc.?
Dolly Ave: For me, being on set with a team of creatives that you worked with from start to finish is the most rewarding part of the process. Having everyone excited and willing to work together towards a finished product is the best part of a collaboration. At the end of the day, seeing the client happy is what makes the entire production worth it. You feel you did your job and that there was trust in the team you chose.
Phoblographer: What are some challenges you encounter on shoots, and how do you navigate them?
Dolly Ave: A shoot never goes as we plan it. The weather could interfere; talent could arrive late; gear could malfunction. The list goes on. Being calm and adaptable is important. We cannot control every aspect on the day of the set, but we can control how we react to these challenges.
Phoblographer: What’s been the most surprising or challenging aspect of collaborating with brands?
Dolly Ave: I’ve learned that the bigger the scale of the shoot, the longer the creative process becomes. Having more eyes and opinions can take a project far away from the original concept. Limitation on set can be challenging when there is not a lot of fluidity and risk-taking.
Phoblographer: What are some of the most common mistakes you see aspiring commercial photographers make, and what tips would you give for avoiding them?
Dolly Ave: The biggest mistake is creating a stressful environment for you, your team, and your client. For me, there is not a significant difference between a smaller paid gig and a larger one, other than budget and a few more moving parts. Treat your team well. Your product may look fantastic, but the way everyone feels when they leave will determine whether you land another one. The best advice I can give is to treat every person on set equally. You’ll have a team that is passionate and excited to be there with you.
Phoblographer: What is your gear setup for your commercial work, and what makes this setup a good fit for you and your clients?
Dolly Ave: My gear go-to is between Canon and Sony cameras. Specifically, I use the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV or a Sony a7R III for behind-the-scenes capturing. The majority of the commercial work that I capture relies on candid moments, which doesn’t require a lot of gear. Very rarely am I requested to be in a controlled studio environment. I am generally on the go or capturing a moment in real-time. If necessary, I will have a standard reflector on me and/or Profoto, AlienBees, or Godox strobe lights.
Phoblographer: Did you continue to shoot commercial work during lockdowns? If so, what did that look like?
Dolly Ave: I did continue to shoot commercial work during the lockdown. The safety protocols were definitely new for me. I’d be required to take multiple COVID tests, wear three masks on top of one another, and not be able to drink or eat indoors. The biggest setback had to be securing dates and locations. During lockdown, you weren’t sure if your gig would be canceled until the last minute. Creative shoots outdoors and from home were very prominent for me during that time frame.
Phoblographer: If you could change one thing about the photo industry, what would it be and why?
Dolly Ave: I would say the photo industry tends to undervalue the work we photographers are doing. Photojournalists are a powerful tool in capturing truth, moments, and brand identity for major companies. It’s disheartening to see so many aspiring photographers get exploited. Freelancers need more protection.
Phoblographer: Alternatively, what are some of the most exciting trends or movements you’ve noticed in the commercial sphere over the last year or so? What makes you optimistic for the future of the industry?
Dolly Ave: I love that anyone can essentially pick up a camera and learn. I love that this medium is so accessible and creates a path for great work to be seen and captured.
Phoblographer: What is your number one business tip for emerging photographers? Anything you wish you’d known before you started?
Dolly Ave: Make tax season easier, and have a separate card for business-related transactions. It really just makes life easier. Resist the urge to mix!
Phoblographer: Who is your dream client and why would you love to work with this brand?
Dolly Ave: My dream client would be Stella McCartney. Her brand is so well-known and fun with a great cause behind the clothes. Her brand also mixes fashion with the music industry, which is an area of photography I truly love. I also love her father, Paul McCartney.
Phoblographer: Do you make time to shoot personal work as well as client work? If so, how do personal projects fuel your work with brands?
Dolly Ave: Lately, the personal work I shoot comes from my 35mm film camera. Just shooting a moment without thinking too deeply about it gives me a sense of spontaneity that can get lost when creating work for others. My favorite personal project in recent years would have to be capturing images of landscapes of places I’ve traveled. What I mainly capture are people, and it is so nice to just appreciate beautiful sights.