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Phillips Mill Photographic Exhibition winner Michael Ast creates from a place of connection

A couple gazing out to sea on a nude beach, a bird on the Monterey coastline, birds flying in formation above Pfeiffer Beach and leaves in Salt Hollow – together they evoke a feeling, a mood, an emotion.
Judged Best Body of Work /Best in Show at this year’s Phillips Mill Photographic Exhibition by well-respected photographer Emmet Gowin, formerly professor of art at Princeton University, who served as juror, the photographs are the work of photographer Michael Ast.
“I was quite happy because Emmet Gowin is kind of a hero of mine – as a visual artist and human being and thinker,” Ast said.
A longtime photojournalist who also has had a longtime career in advertising, Ast said he selected and entered the four photographs because of “the way they play off one another, sharing somewhat of a coastal setting, and I think a gleaning fascination with landscape’s inexhaustible lyricism.”
“But also they share a tonality with one another,” he said. “The blacks and white working perhaps on an emotive level that works from and towards an interiority of both the photographer and viewer, if I’m successful.”
Ordinarily, Best in Show and Best Body of Work are separate awards, but Gowin selected Ast’s photographs for a combined award of Best Body of Work/Best in Show. Spencer Saunders, founder of the show, now in its 27th year, said Ast was the only photographer who had all four of the works he submitted accepted into the show.
“Michael’s work, he felt, was really special,” Saunders said of Gowin’s decision. “He felt this artist wasn’t just recording an event.” The photograph of the couple, for example, reflects the experience of relaxing at the beach, he said.
The four photographs are part of a larger series of work, which Saunders said he looks forward to seeing. Some of the photographs came from a body of work published in one of Ast’s two books of photographs, “a musing from the rocking dock.”
“He really gets the concept we’re looking for,” said Saunders. The show’s theme is “Photography as Art, Photographer as Artist.”
“(The award) couldn’t have gone to a more dedicated person,” Saunders said. “His work is personal, emotional and private. He’s confident enough to share it with others. … He’s a passionate artist and image maker.”
For Best Body of Work, photographers were asked to submit four to six images that tell a story because of composition, color or shapes, Saunders said, adding, “They’re speaking through their artwork.”
Ast said he tends to take photographs when he’s feeling a connection from the inside. “I’m not a photographer who wants to make these perfect pictures,” he said.
Things that attract his eye, said the 47-year-old graduate of Boston University, who also runs a design firm – ABCA Design – with his wife, Angela, tie photographs together narratively, aside from just a shared environment or landscape.
“I think I’ve always looked at photographs narratively and how they play off one another,” he said.
“In that sense,” Ast said, “tonality (for black and white work) is as critical as a painter working in watercolor or oil . . . it’s all about conjuring emotion, which for me always begins from an internal reaction to the external.”
Ast said he believes tonality comes out even more in print than it does online, but this year, the physical exhibition traditionally showcased in the Phillips Mill Gallery in New Hope was canceled, and an online only show was mounted due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Saunders said an online show had been planned to follow the physical exhibition.
The 27th Phillips Mill Photographic Exhibition, featuring 143 accepted works from among the 1,000 entries submitted, is continuing online at All work is for sale.
“I’m sad I couldn’t have the prints seen,” Ast said, “but it turned into a very nice online show.”
Saunders said he expects the show will return to the gallery next year, but an online component is very likely to continue.

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