In 2013, photographer Ash Dye moved to Chicago from Athens, Ohio, where she’d first become involved in an underground music scene. Within a few months of arriving here, Dye landed an internship at the Empty Bottle, which she used to launch an interview series called Empty Exchange; in 2014, she became a bartender at the venue. Her blossoming career as a photographer has often intersected with her involvement in Chicago music, and she’s photographed a who’s who of emerging Chicago artists. Whenever you see a local indie act covered in the media these days, there’s a good chance Dye took their press photo.
As told to Leor Galil
I had always been really involved in the music scene in the town I lived in before moving here, and so I did a lot of research on venues and whatnot before I got here and found the Empty Bottle. I had this ulterior motive to get an internship there and then convince them to let me start a band interview series for their blog. Which they did—it totally worked out. I started interning there in August 2013 and did this pretty casual interview series where I’d pick a band that was coming to play and interview them—and take their photo.
I grew up in Lebanon, Ohio, which is a small town that’s growing into more of a suburban landscape; there’s lots more subdivisions and whatnot. I knew I wanted to do something in the arts. I was never huge on photography when I was in high school, but it seemed really appealing to me. So that’s what I left to go to college for. I went to Ohio University, and I got accepted into this pretty nice photojournalism program in the Scripps School [of Journalism].
[It was] a pretty classic sheltered-kid-to-college-freedom vibe. I was partying a lot, meeting a lot of new people, and getting involved in the music scene there. I ended up dropping out of my photo program and doing photos for fun. Taking photos of shows. Any way I could get into a show for free. Photos of my friends. I lived there [in Athens] for six years—so, four after I dropped out of school. The music scene there was just amazing.
I feel like a lot of bands from Chicago would come play there, and the house-show scene was pretty incredible. There was this place called the Lodge that this person Sean booked for, and he was getting these amazing synth artists from Germany to come. Palm came and played there a year after I left. I was there at a great time. . . . Spencer [Radcliffe] was there while I was there, also very involved in the music scene and always playing shows.
Spencer Radcliffe put together this compilation of indie music from Athens, Ohio, in 2013.
I shot a lot of film but wasn’t developing [it] or anything on my own. I was doing it in a very “documenting my own life” kinda way. I just lived in my photo album, or in a shoebox of pictures. I don’t think I really understood why and how I liked to photograph things. I don’t think I had the vocabulary or understanding of what was drawing me there so fiercely, but it was something I was always doing.
I started to do portraits of my friends here and there, which is something I picked back up really strongly after I moved here. It was a way for me to connect to the world around me that I didn’t really have before.
I didn’t know anything about alternative ways of living until I came to Athens, Ohio. I didn’t even know shows were a thing; I was someone who would call a show a “concert.” People having bands with their friends, playing shows on the weekend, and it being an accessible community and part of a lifestyle was really unfamiliar to me but really engaging. I was pretty sheltered before.
When I was in high school, I was friends with a lot of Christian kids, and I think the appeal there is, “Oh, the collective emotional experience in a room.” When I found music I was like, “Oh, this is what I’ve been looking for.”
Athens was a diverse place. I got to meet a ton of people with different gender expressions and identities. There was this crust-punk house called BrownTown. All these crust punks were always coming through and making meals for everyone who came to shows. It was this type of communal living—and community—that I had not really experienced before. It felt special.
I felt like my time there was winding down. I never really acted with much foresight. It was, like, “Oh, Athens is a small town. I’ve only lived in small towns.” A couple of my really close friends had moved away, and Chicago is the closest big city—it felt the most accessible. A group of us from Athens split the cost of a U-Haul—like, a giant one. It felt kind of easy. I wasn’t totally alone, logistically. When I got here, I didn’t know anybody and was alone in that sense. But the logistics behind moving felt a little easier, ’cause I was like, “Yeah, I’ll pile all my shit in this truck with these other folks and figure it out when we get there.”
Moving to a big city, there were things that blew my mind. Like, dog walking as a job. Never really being alone. It’s kind of jarring at first, which I didn’t really expect. But getting that internship at the Bottle, that totally paved the way for me to find my place in the city.
It was a while before I started bartending there, and I feel like that was the key for me. I met so many people and saw so many shows. I would say 90 percent of the people I know now I either met at the Bottle or through the Bottle. Bartending there, it was so much more of a social job. Interning in the office—the people in the office were cool, but bartending, you talk to a million people a night. Bands are coming through—if it’s a band you really like, then you’re like, “Most of the people at this show, I have got this in common with at least.” I think that really let me find out where I felt most at home in the city.
One of the earlier photo projects that I showed in Chicago was this thing called “Personal Space.” That was something I did when I first moved here. I was like, “Wow, I don’t have any friends, but I still want to take photos.” So I met people online or in person, and I would go to their house and take photos of them nude in their bedroom. I thought of it as an intentional way to push myself past having to be friends with someone to take their photo. Like, being in this really intimate space with a stranger, could I still craft an image with them?
I showed that at the Bottle. Everyone was open to receiving it, I feel, because they knew me and they asked about the work that was up. I’d be working the bar while they’d be hanging up in the bar. I felt like people were open to seeing it, because I was a new member of the community and becoming friends with people and making connections that way.
For future projects, when I started doing more legitimate studio work and band photos, people knew I was a photographer already, and they knew me from the Bottle. I think those two [factors] made me a comfortable person to reach out to, to get band photos done.
In 2015, I remember, I did my first legitimate paid band photo, for Negative Scanner. It was also the last B Side cover of the Reader. That was the first time a band had really intentionally reached out to me for photos. Then I think I got more focused on doing portraits and studio work, not necessarily band photos. I was most often reached out to for those initially—because, I think, of the Bottle.
In 2016, 2017, I started renting a studio space and got really serious about teaching myself studio photography. I went to school for a year and a half, but I only learned the basics of how to shoot manually—so studio equipment and lighting, I had to teach myself all of that. Thankfully there were places like Latitude. I took a bunch of classes at Latitude, this print shop in Chicago, and they really helped fill in some educational gaps.
I felt like part of the music community pretty early on. I’m just now starting to feel like I’m part of this photo community. That is a recent development. I’ve been shooting long enough, and I feel comfortable and sound enough in my skill sets that I can say I’m a photographer and I’m a part of that community. But Chicago has always felt like a really welcoming place to me. That’s my experience—that’s why, once I got here, it felt so easy to stay.
I don’t have a lot of strong family ties or long-term people in my life. I’ve been in Chicago for almost ten years now. There’s something so wonderful about entering a room or space and seeing someone that maybe you’ve seen peripherally—like maybe I just see them at shows, but I’ve been seeing this person at shows for a decade, and there’s so much comfort I find in that, knowing that I do have ties, a history, and a sense of belonging in a space.
And I think the Chicago music scene—and especially at the Bottle, and the way shows were run there and how seriously everyone took making people feel comfortable in the space—it feels like a community to be proud of being a part of.