Art & Photography

Do you Know how Beautiful you Are?

Ashley Markle’s latest photographic series re-enacts and imagines scenes of a lost relationship with her father

All photography Ashley Markle

Ashley Markle was ten years old when her father left her life. Her parents had divorced six years previously, and though she had maintained something of a relationship with her father, seeing him every other weekend, she found he was increasingly distant. He would be hours late to see her, or he would cancel visits at short notice, or he would simply never show up. He had his reasons; a poverty-stricken and troubled upbringing that led to problems that a child wouldn’t necessarily understand. But he had always taught her never to let people walk over her – so, she told him to stop, and he left.

For the next ten years, Markle kept herself busy with her academic studies and physical training. She attended Kent State University and graduated with a degree in film, and prepared to leave her small home town in north-eastern Ohio for New York. She knew that she would probably never return, and decided to try and see her father one last time, before it was too late. The two met up, walked and talked, and within a few hours they had re-entered each other’s lives. Markle’s latest photographic series, Do you know how beautiful you are?, tells this story of two strangers coming to know each other, as father and daughter, and picturing, re-enacting, and imagining scenes of a lost relationship.

Markle began photographing her father in 2020 while she was working on her series, Weekends with my Mother and her Lover, which explores the relationship between her mother, her stepfather, and herself in touching, humorous, and voyeuristic images. At first, Markle didn’t think of her work with her father as another series, rather simply as an opportunity to bond with him. “But”, she says, “as soon as I saw the first photos I knew I had something magical here. I didn’t know what it was for a long time. I just kept trusting my instincts and allowing myself to photograph the images that popped in my head.”

The pair were still rebuilding their relationship, so the process was slow and at times a little awkward: “I was really nervous to fully show him who I was as an artist because he’s this big, burly, blue collar guy and I didn’t think he would care. I also felt like if I didn’t show him I was a reflection of himself, he would disappear. But, I decided if I was going to attempt to have a real relationship with him, he needed to see all of me.”

Markle approached photographing her father with the same experimentation and emotion that she applied to her that of her mother and stepfather. The series is made up of a mixture of documentary and staged photographs. Pictures of his possessions – a caricature portrait made at Disneyland, a table of lighters and weed grinders – are shown alongside imaginative, idealised images drawn from memory, events, and experiences that the two never previously shared.

“Some images I created as retakes of moments we missed out on together. Like me standing in my bedroom getting ready for the day while my dad is there. Or me climbing the tree in his front yard and him standing there watching me or asking me to come down. Those moments were recreations of memories that happened but that my father wasn’t actually there for. So, I made them with him there as a gift to my younger self.”

One of the first images they made together shows Markle and her father on the shore of Mosquito Lake, Ohio. The pair are mirror images: both are wearing denim jeans and dark T-shirts, he’s standing still, while she seems to be floating, one hand holding the shutter release. “I remember my dad chuckling at everything, but still being open to everything I suggested. There were two men sitting on a picnic table nearby watching us as we took these strange photos on the beach. I tuned them out like I usually do with people in public while I’m shooting and I could tell that my dad noticed me tuning them out and he immediately followed suit. All I did for the setup was place my dad where he needed to be in the frame and said ‘now catch me’ and I sprinted toward him.”

Markle recognises that the act of photographing didn’t come naturally to her father, but that as time passed the two became more relaxed in each other’s presence. Her father became familiar with her working method and style, he even started to offer his own suggestions for poses.

For Markle, making this series was as much about photographing her father as it was learning about herself. She discovered similarities in their personalities and in their troubles and fears: “We unfortunately share similar mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety. We are both very stubborn and hot headed but also are extremely loyal and loving to the few people we let in to our lives. We’re both very independent and value alone time. And we’re both afraid the other is going to leave us again.”

“In the past I didn’t really relate to anyone and I never felt like I could talk to anybody about the way I feel. But because my dad feels the exact same way a lot of the time, it’s nice to be able to confide in him. We can commiserate together and lean on each other when we’re struggling.”