In some ways, uniforms bring homogeneity to a group of people. When every kid in the class has the same outfit, no one has to feel like they can’t afford the latest jeans. Soldiers become a unit rather than renegades and employees are easily recognizable. But even when they’re dressed the same, real individuals will always stand out. The person behind the uniform is always there, waiting to be truly seen.
Photographer, Ashley Wilhardt has always been attracted to taking away the superficial layers we use to identify one another. She longs to capture the essence of a person and to take pictures without the distractions of fashion. So she asked both friends and models to strip down and wrap towels on their heads — straight out of the shower (or the ocean) with nothing to hide.
“I loved the idea that you could basically take any model, have them wear the same wardrobe, and every image could turn out so differently,” she tells us.
The photos were at once vulnerable and whimsical, and what started off as a small project grew quickly. Friendships were forged through Wilhardt’s lens as she worked to personally connect with each of her subjects. She wanted to expose the soft, emotional parts of her models that were normally kept closed off, hidden behind clothes, hair, and makeup. She hopes we can look at the images and uncover more than baseline sensuality to find lasting beauty.
Wilhardt was kind of enough to share some of her work with us recently. And we chatted about the series, her hope to make “The Head Towel Series” a coffee table book in the next year, and the various people in her ever-widening circle of friends who have (or will) found themselves in front of her camera.
How long have you been a photographer?
Well, I’ve loved it my whole life … I’ve just always known that it’s something I’ve wanted to do. It’s the only thing I can picture myself doing. But I just started photographing people… probably a little over a year ago when I got a job at my first magazine. Once I started doing portraits and photographing people, it was this new challenge. Unlike landscape or objects you can’t control it as much. It also was such a great way to meet different types of people.
What drew you to create the Head Towel series?
It’s a way for me to bring all these different people together in one thing. It’s my friends, my family members, my yoga instructor, my classmates, my grandma, people I’ve worked with in the past … I just love it because it’s was something everybody can do at any age, and any place.
It’s also just kind of an iconic look, that I find really beautiful.
Are you focusing mostly on people you know or are your subjects often unknown to you before a shoot?
A lot of them are strangers or people I just met. Some are people who contacted me through my website and my Instagram … Just over the past few months everyone I met, everyone I knew, had be in the series. And the plan is to keep doing it for the next year or so and then put it all into one coffee table book next summer.
Why did you photograph everyone wearing a towel on their head, why that moment specifically?
I just love the idea that everyone can do it, and you don’t have to worry about what you look like necessarily. I have super curly hair so sometimes it’s just unmanageable. Sometimes after I shower I’ll just whip it up in a towel and I was thinking “Oh my god, that’s so easy and universal.” Anybody can do it, you don’t even need to get ready … and like I say, I just kind of liked the look of it.
It seems like there’s a sense of vulnerability that comes with having just gotten out of the shower, everything else wiped away.
What were the challenges of getting the vulnerability and connection you were after in these shots?
I think the thing I’ve loved about it so far is that everyone kind of makes it their own, so some people aren’t as comfortable getting half undressed so then we do more stuff that’s clothed. Then there are other people that are super open and free. So it has been fun how the different people I’ve had in it will bring themselves into it. So luckily I haven’t faced too many challenges because you get there and then it takes a life of its own. With that particular person.
What else have you been working on in photography?
I’m doing a lot of freelance and I work with a couple different magazines right now, Uproxx included! I work with teams within the community. I also do a lot of freelance portraits for people, and stuff like that. I just graduated college so it’s been a lot of “getting your work out there.”
What brings you joy in your work — with the Head Towel Series, in particular?
I just love that you have the same idea every single time, but yet it comes out so different with every single person I shoot. I finish every single one, and I’m like, “Oh my god, I think this ones my new favorite!” It’s so unpredictable and yet you go in with such a clear idea of what you want. You’re like, “Okay, I just want you to put this towel on top of your head like you just got out of the shower,” and yet every time it’s totally new, totally different.
Is there a shoot that you’ve done recently that came out in an unexpected or amazing way?
Yeah, recently I went to Stratton, Vermont for a Wanderlust Yoga Festival. And, my mom, my sister, and I have gone every single year but we pick a different location every time. So we’d never been to Vermont, and it was one of the last ones in the United States that we hadn’t knocked off our list. We ended up running into these girls who were starting their own clothing company. These three sisters work together, and we ended up talking, and I had them be in the series. I ended up making this great connection with a small company that makes their own clothing, and it’s this super connected sisterhood. Ever since then we’ve worked with a bunch of projects together. That’s the thing I love about it too, it brings together people from across the United States.
Did they wear their own designed clothes in the shoot?
Yeah, and we went up in the mountain and shot in the grass.
Speaking of locations, do you find you shoot outside or more in people’s homes? How do you choose the space for a subject?
I do a lot of people’s homes. It’s where they feel comfortable. So we’ll start there, and then from there move towards going outside. Like I have a friend and she has this gorgeous backyard, so with her, we did the whole thing in the garden. With others, we might do it on the beach. It really just depends.
How do you get people comfortable with being in various states of undress?
I really enjoy not just shooting people as if they’re a client but really becoming friends with them. So leading up to a shoot we’re talking constantly. I really try to make a connection by building a friendship, hanging out, talking, grabbing coffee. And then by the end of it, we’re laughing the whole time and it just kind of comes naturally then after that. Then it’s not so intimidating. By the end of it, they’re coming up with their own ideas.
Do you have dream people that you’d like to be in the head towel series? What’s next in terms of finding more people?
Oh my gosh I haven’t even thought about that. I mean I would obviously love to do as much as I can in the next year. I want everyone I meet, everyone I come across, friends I make along the way. It kind of puts together this year of my life with these different people I’ve met.
With your coffee table book, will you be like including stories in it? The story behind the photograph or the friendship?
I would love to add little excerpts to the photographs or a quote that they said during the shoot that stuck out to me. When we’re shooting, we’re talking the whole time too!