Born and raised in Austin, Texas, Davis Ayer began taking photos in 2007. Coming from a background in architectural history, he was originally drawn to space, shapes, and abstract compositions. Under the mentorship of architectural photographer Casey Dunn, he was soon introduced to the world of analogue film, and artists like Steven Shore, Joel Sternfeld, and Andreas Gursky.
Finding truth in the emulsion, Ayer set forth on a journey of self discovery that continued for the rest of his life.
Davis Ayer passed away in November of 2022.
I was pleasantly surprised by the exuberence I found radiating off Davis while we spoke. I half-expected a brooding hermit, inarticulate and internal, but the guy just radiates joy at the act of photography, and getting down deep with his process and his thoughts was a real joy. I was intrigued by his approach and inspired by his love of both the process and the mystique of photography.
This interview has been edited for clarity and content.
Yeah, I was just doing my thing in Austin, started trying to pursue photography, and it was kind of like, you could only go so far. I was doing a lot of work and just in order to actually be able to pursue it with any kind of real expectations of success, I had to leave. So I came out here with my girlfriend Lauryn, and she’s pursuing the whole modeling thing…but she’s an artist, too, so she’s getting into all that. So I’ve just been kind of doing my own thing, and it’s a whole new experience.
I picked up…I feel like it’s everybody’s story, where they’re like, “my dad had an old canon ae-1” that I used to play with, but never really thought about photography, it was always I just did for fun, a little bit. Then I went to college and got a history and political science degree and that led nowhere. I mean, what can you do with that? So I basically had to get out of school, what am I doing with my life, what am I meant to do, what would I enjoy, just kind of open to anything, and just kind of fell into taking photos, and that’s, yeah, 2007, 2008, did the Flickr thing early on, seeing people on there and started actually trying to pursue it and the whole fake it ’til you make it thing, having no idea what I’m doing and slowly, through trial & error, learning.
I mean I graduated in 2006, so, yeah…
I started when I was 24, did a couple of years of just shooting weddings and portraits and stuff, I hate doing that stuff now, but it was invaluable experience. Random odd jobs, I feel like your early 20s are when you figure yourself out and make a little money and figure out what you want to say to the world.
Yeah, I know. It’s an ongoing process, right? The older I’m getting, I’m starting to feel a little bit like…for so long I had no idea what I was doing and grasping for whatever and just trying to figure stuff out, and it’s starting to finally coalesce and come together, it’s weird. It’s kind of hard to describe.
You know, the year 2013 I basically, didn’t take it completely off, but I was…I moved out here, was ready to work and make stuff and…moving, leaving my hometown for the first time, and the vastness of this place, I became a shut in, depressed, anxious about stuff and I feel like in that period of time I just festered on stuff and somehow used those feelings as a way to use it in art and went so inside myself, was just messing around with processes and experimenting with new ideas, ways to manipulate a photo or shoot something, thinking about all of these things but not shooting a bunch. And then…I still shot, I went to Europe that year, went to Iceland and Portugal and shot a little bit.
For sure. But it sucked; Iceland was so cold, my camera stopped working, two of my cameras stopped working. I was stuck with one shitty camera for most of the trip. I’m in the most amazing places and thinking, “Oh man, I want my medium format.”
What did I have…I had my Minolta 35mm which is still pretty good, but…
Yeah…yeah. I guess starting in 2014, I did this shoot where Lauryn and I went to white sands, and I don’t know what it was, but that seems like the first shoot where it kind of clicked, where I feel like, for the first time, I knew what I wanted it to look like. Because I never have any idea what I want a photo to look like, it’s difficult for me to picture things before they happen. And then this year I’ve just kind of expanded on that, gone down different routes but still trying to make it all the same feel, it’s all just starting to come together. I feel I know more when I see a photo that it’s mine, that this is the shot, this is a photo that’s my thing, my essence, or whatever.
Yeah, exactly! It used to be a lot harder to find those. And I’m getting it more and more, so that’s good. And when you shoot film it can be so hard because you only get so many shots, and especially with medium format, it’s…I can’t tell you how hard it is to capture a moment on there, because you have to focus, it’s heavy, it’s bulky, everyone is going to know when you’re shooting it.
Exactly. There’s no way to be sly with that thing, so you really have to set up shots and so you really have to be selective, not waste your film. And figuring out when to best use it, when it’s appropriate…I shoot digital too, it’s weird how many people don’t realize you can shoot with digital and just use it as a light meter, essentially. Everything’s so much easier, and it’s really good practice.
Hanging out, going through the money that I’d saved up. It’s been good, at least for the last few years. I’ve had my print store that’s consistent, but I wasn’t really doing a lot – just thinking a lot. I think that’s where the most important stuff comes from, when you’re not…I feel like everybody’s photography is at least…your sensibilities are filtered through your experiences in the world, everything you’ve read, watched and seen, the stuff that you consume outside of photography or taking pictures is probably the most important stuff, informs what you’re into. So, it’s important to binge-watch The Sopranos and watch old movies.
I definitely enjoy the process more than the shooting. I don’t want to be a photographer who says, “Oh, I’ll just take this shot and make it cool later.” But, I’m also…the subject is not the most important thing to me? I feel like it’s more about composition, or shape, or color. Feeling…regardless of what it is. When I shoot I feel like I’m not thinking, I have a hard time planning stuff out before a shoot, coming up with a grand plan, I just have to go and my mind shuts off.
Yeah, definitely. And then a couple days or weeks later I get a bunch of photos back and I don’t even remember taking them, and then I get to have my fun, figuring out how I want to handle the images. And that’s the fun part to me. I feel like people selections are always the most important thing. Especially now that most people shoot digital and you have thousands of images and you can perfect things. What you show is…nobody has to show everything, what you choose is the biggest thing. I also have a whole thing about….that’s why I like film too…I don’t like perfection in photos. I don’t like…something has to be off about it, a little bit, I don’t like things that are just too clean.
Maybe because…I guess the deeper answer is because the world isn’t like that, but maybe at the surface level, because it’s too easy, it’s too easy to make everything pretty. It’s more interesting to me to try to find this balance between beauty and chaos. It’s just this feeling that I’m always trying to convey, that I can’t put into words but I can put into photos.
I feel like I might…part of me is like I don’t wanna know…becoming too self-aware about your own stuff can change things…It’s the same reason I didn’t go to photography school, knowing too much about everything, maybe not, maybe I would completely benefit from it, maybe that’s my fear, not letting me accept it.
But I’ve always had this whole thing of not…when I first started I looked at a lot of people’s work, I was introduced to a lot of photographers, and then at some point I just stopped, for the most part. I mean I still look at Instagram. I have friends who take photos – I look at their stuff. But for the most part, I try not to look at other people’s stuff for inspiration. I have this idea that if you do a self-imposed isolation from the rest of that, your thought process can be more original. It’s more based off of your own thoughts, rather than viewing other people’s work and thinking, “Oh, I wanna do something like that.” But at some point I want to. I think I’m ready to start looking at other people’s stuff because I’m sure it would help me – but now that I feel I have my own style more defined that’s been really helpful. I feel like it clouds me to see what everybody else is doing. Especially with how everything works, it’s so easy to get caught up in all the bullshit, followers, whose photos are progressing, who’s popular.
Yeah, totally. Not caring about…really just being selfish with my work, and doing it solely for myself, what I like, not caring, and it seems like as soon as I started doing that people seemed to respond to it, which is good, I guess? It’s also always an evolution. I feel like I’m nowhere near what I want to be as a photographer. I want to get really good at setting up shots and…there’s a million things. I’m my biggest critic. I usually hate most of my photos. There’s a list of things that I need to be working on and getting better at angles and mixing up my…more diverse f-stops, getting more stuff in focus in the frame.
There’s a million things that I need to work on to get better and I feel like every shoot, you try to work on something, work on one little thing, it’s a slow evolution, and I know I’m nowhere near.
Definitely. And that’s what I feel I’m doing with my post stuff. I don’t want to be defined by a certain process. I look at it like, I’m developing this big box of tricks that I can do. I can make a photo look like this, and nobody knows how I do it, which is kind of cool. I kind of like that.
I feel like if somebody would’ve told me how to manipulate a photo, then I would’ve started doing that. Then I wouldn’t have developed my own thing that I’m doing now, which I like better,
Yeah. The fun is in being, “Damn, how did somebody do that??” and then, “Is that soaked film? Is that a light leak? Is that before they took the photo or after? A real double exposure?” And you could ask the person, but if you have a camera, go try it and maybe in trying to figure that thing out you come up with this crazy other accident that’s even better.
I’d say the majority of stuff I come up with in ways to shoot something are just complete accidents. Accidentally firing my Polaroid and then I Have to make it a double exposure, and then that one comes out awesome so then the next time that I shoot I try to replicate that. And you learn it’s a big puzzle, and I’m trying to make…I don’t even know what I’m trying to put together, I do it one piece at a time, and I feel like it’s coming together more, maybe I have the borders. Should I keep going with it? I dunno, I feel like it’s such a long journey, you could take photos forever.
Definitely. Every shoot has a different energy about it. The person that’s in it and the whole experience dictates what happens. I think every shoot’s a collaboration.
I’m terrified! I love…I’ll even say this on shoots sometimes, to whoever I’m shooting, we’re driving around, looking for a location or something and the sun is setting, we’re chasing the light, I’ve no idea where we’re gonna shoot, and I’ll say, “I love this, this is my favorite thing right now, I have no idea what we’re gonna do, but in 15 minutes the sun is gonna be down and we’re gonna have 4 Polaroids and I’ve no idea what they’re gonna be right now, but they’re gonna live forever!” And we have no idea. I love that – I love not knowing.
Yeah. Somebody just saying, “why don’t we go down this alleyway?” And we go down there and there’s a little light pocket and all of a sudden it’s that turn of fate that made the thing what it is, and I like that…Improv about it, the randomness…I don’t really believe in fate, but The Fate of it all.
Definitely. Definitely. I think I need pressure. Then I think about it…I say I need it, but the thought of planning out a shoot, having everything down, having a mood board, all that shit, that seems like super-pressure to me, I don’t think I would like that. So maybe I don’t like pressure.
Yeah, I need the “Holy shit, I have no idea what’s happening, holding on for dear life, grasping for branches while you’re falling down the tree.”
There’s something about that energy, I kind of like that frantic, anxious energy. But I also don’t know if that gets conveyed in my work.
And that’s the thing, I can’t see my own work, I don’t know what it looks like. I feel like I can only go by what people tell me they interpret, but I also like that…I’m totally into that open interpretation, I don’t like to tell anybody what a photo is supposed to be, what do You take from it, what do You see in it, and some people tell me the photos have a strong feeling of nostalgia or a deep sadness or something, and to me I feel it reflects the viewer, what they’re feeling and I kinda like that.
Yeah, I don’t really like defining myself or my work because I don’t feel like it’s ever…I don’t feel like it’s defined, it’s not defined to me, I like the whole magician thing, I kinda wanna be a magician, I wanna be the person that you never actually see, you know? That’s just mysterious, that just makes images and you’ve no idea how and doesn’t ever talk about it and no one ever knows why. I’ve got such a desire to do that.
I really like trying to find a way to do something that maybe nobody’s ever done before. I know that’s probably impossible, but also, there aren’t any rules, and I think that’s the big thing that people get stuck in, feeling like you Have to do something a certain way because that’s the way that you were taught, or the way people do it, your friends do it, I don’t know. And it’s just…if you just drop everything, there’s nothing you have to do, cameras are crazy machines, they’re insane. You can freeze time. You can do anything with it.
It’s like this crazy magic thing…and exploring all the ways to use it, instead of just being, “Okay, this is going to make it a little bit brighter and I’m gonna open up my focus.” But I guess it just depends on what you’re going for, but I feel like…how does this work?? How does this crazy thing capture real life on a little emulsion, burnt onto a thing, that’s insane!
I tell people about the Polaroid process, dozens of chemical interactions that have to work perfectly every time. It’s fascinating.
I can feel that difference. I don’t know about you, when something’s actually there, I feel like I can feel it, even if you can’t see the…
To me, it is so much more special, and I feel that…there is the argument that people think film is just going to die and they just announced they’re going to stop making 220 film, which sucks for me. I think it’s gonna be like vinyl, it’s gonna be for the connoisseurs. I challenge anybody to go shoot a picture with a 5D and then go shoot a picture with an RZ and…tell me there’s not just more truth in the RZ, just inherent to the photo. I feel like it’s just there and it’s undeniable. That’s why I don’t think it’s ever going to go away…I hope not. I’ll adapt if it does.
I know. Maybe I’ll buy an old film factory one day. Apparently there are just a bunch of film factories in Europe, they just need a little bit of care.
I don’t know what I would do w/o the Fuji, that’s what I end up shooting with, that film’s amazing, it’s probably the most essential thing I use, because I still haven’t found…because Impossible film is good, it’s nice having that option, but for the money you have to spend on it and for what you get, rarely worth it.
I just don’t feel like I have control.
Yeah…It’s hard to talk about that without talking about my process, but if you’re manipulating negatives in a way, you can start with your clean neg and do something, a slow decay of some kind, work with chemicals or whatever, I have a scanner, do a scan, let it decay a little bit more, do a scan, at some point it’s past where I want it to be, but at some point it’s…and luckily, because I’ve shot with the RZ for several years, I have books and books of negatives, and those are my experiments, those are my lab tests, and so it’s cool, being able to come up with something, get it pretty close to what I want on this photo, then throw that away, then go do it on the one that counts. I like the danger of screwing it up, of potentially messing it up and ruining it and having to walk that line…getting it right…I don’t even know what that is I’m trying to get to, to me it’s a feeling, at some point, yeah, it just clicks, this is what this is, what it’s supposed to be.
Sometimes when I shoot I’ll know that, I’ll shoot and I’ll be like, “I’m going to do something with the sky, I’m going to have some colors coming in Here” and obviously with double exposures you’ve have to have some kind of plan, but that’s usually on the fly, okay, here’s my first image and now okay what do I need to, what can I do, trees, a mountain are we going to double expose this, make you invisible against the skyline or are we going to just cut off your….you do anything, I guess I’ve gotten pretty good at seeing in layers, being able to look at a scene and figure out…because I’m so into shapes and stuff, especially with doubles, figuring out how to work with the shapes that are in front of you, and viewing, seeing your space and your negative space and your darks and your lights and how to…what you need to do, like maybe lower the exposure on the second exposure to make sure you don’t blow it out and make sure you still have some of the first exposure bleeding through. Seeing that stuff, being able to zone in on what I’m wanting to do with that is definitely pretty thought out, but like I said, then I still go complete manic mode when I’m shooting and I’m not really thinking about anything, I’m mumbling to myself and usually the model’s completely, “what is going on?” probably kind of uncomfortable, and I’m like, “3.2…uh…”
Definitely. Yeah. It’s been really good. Being able to travel…I mean, we traveled together…It’s like, I could go to Europe by myself or go to Europe with this beautiful girl that will let me photograph her. Working together, I’ve definitely I’ve taken a lot from working with her, and having one person…we’ve totally, we’ve both influenced each other, and I’m sure a lot of my change in the last couple years has come from her influence.
Yeah, I feel like I’m not…when I shoot a model, it’s weird, I feel like with guy photographers, especially…It’s so easy to think with your whatever and to focus on the…I don’t know, I feel like your gut tells you to…and I’ve definitely tried…to me, that’s not what interests me, I’m interested in…I feel like, I like the naked body as art, I like that it’s completely pure innocence, I love the smoothness, the shape, I don’t’ really like clothes, I don’t like shooting fashion, I feel like that stuff just gets in the way. I would rather…I feel like bad clothes can ruin a photo, make it something that I don’t like.
I still feel like, regardless of the subject, I’m shooting what my eye’s drawn to, and my eye is always drawn to shape and space and negative space and working with…I like smooth curves and…yeah, I don’t go towards the…the intention is not to depict somebody in a certain way, it’s still about expressing a feeling through somebody else.
Yeah, exactly. But then again, it’s weird, I guess I’m going to have a write-up in Playboy next month (February), so I’m like, well, is this my thing? Is this where I go? I don’t know…I don’t know what kind of stuff I make.
Mm hm. I dunno, you work with a naked body, there’s already gonna be some inherent sexuality to it, I guess.
Yeah. I like that you see that, that’s also something that’s been important to me, having trust with the people you work with is really key, and I don’t ever wanna be labeled as something sketchy. I do believe in just making art and trying to form what’s going on in my head into a photo, I feel like you don’t really have to draw that much attention to things, people’s work that tends to be more titillating or whatever, you already have a naked body there, the things that are less revealing are, to me, sexier.
The concealment, I’m way more interested in talking about that, and the idea of that and trying to figure out a way to think of that in a photo than I am any other…I’m way more into an idea of a concept…what is sexuality in a photo, something like that will drive me more than…
Exactly. I wanna know the meaning of life. Kind of daunting but…