Ave Pildas interview: renowned jazz photographer releases first documentary

Ave's America
(Image credit: Ave Pildas)

It’s hard to believe that LA-based, Cincinatti-born photographer, Ave Pildas is 83 years old. Within a few seconds of our phone call, he prompts the switch to video so we can chat face-to-face. Living in LA, Ave is blessed with blue skies, sun, and "high's of 57°F" so while he sits happily in a hoodie and a cap, I'm wrapped in two jumpers and a blanket.

Ave has recently released his first documentary, Ave’s America, with ex-student, friend and filmmaker Patrick Taulére – which is what we're here to chat about. The documentary follows Ave on shoots in LA where he is still drawn to the quirky, colorful and non-conforming people that line the city streets some 50 years after arriving. From the touristy Hollywood Boulevard to the notorious Skid Row, an area synonymous with homelessness and poverty, Ave’s approach to people and taking a good photo is always driven by communication and understanding.

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Ave's America

Uncle Sam (Image credit: Ave Pildas)

Ave's photography career began in the jazz clubs of Cincinnati and Ohio, rather than the streets. It was here where he was first introduced to Eric Kloss, a blind saxophone player who not only taught Ave how to play [sax] over the phone but introduced him to the people who would kickstart his life as a photographer. 

With some understanding of the musicality of jazz and having built up a rapport with the venues, Ave, a self-confessed failed musician, started shooting the likes of Nina Simone, John Coltrane, Paul Desmond and Cannonball Adderley. 

Shooting in near darkness with moving musicians wasn’t always a success. “Sometimes it didn’t work and I wouldn’t get anything,” he recalls, but his method of pre-focusing and waiting until the musician came into the shot captured some of his most iconic early photos, many of which are featured in Ave’s America. Ave held onto his so-called failed negatives all this time and today's modern film scanners are able to reveal so much more than he could in a darkroom back then. 

Ave's America

(Image credit: Ave Pildas / Patrick Taulere)

When Ave landed in LA in the early 1970s, he was instantly drawn to the eccentric and unusual characters who fled to the city. Using a black and white Pentax 35mm SLR, a converted Zeiss or Leica lens (he can’t quite remember which) and a tripod, Ave would set up the shot and wait until the right people or person came into view. Sometimes people would walk straight through the shot, but other times, people would bend down to observe the camera creating beautiful unplanned, interactive portraits.

Much of Ave’s work takes the form of an ongoing series with several projects spanning 30 or 40 years. He describes one of his oldest series, Animal Antics, as “street photography but generally not with people,” where he explores the relationship between humans and animals in relationship to how we use them for clothing and food.

Ave's America

(Image credit: Ave Pildas)

Throughout our interview, I notice how quick-witted and on-the-ball Ave is. Not that I expected anything less; the documentary made it clear enough that age isn’t a hindrance for him. Ave's responses are instant and full of detail, he keeps up with modern trends and crazes and I sense that part of the reason he’s held onto his youth is because of photography and the circles he finds himself in.

“I don't have very many friends my age and what I do have here is dying off. A lot of my students became colleagues so I have lots of friends who are 20 or 30 years younger than I am."

Ave's America

One of Ave's most famous musician portraits was of American saxophonist, John Coltrane (Image credit: Ave Pildas)

When I ask him what he has planned for the rest of the day he tells me he’s off to the “organic market to buy lettuces” and in the afternoon he’ll go to the gym – an activity he tries to do three times a week. Along with walking his two Dobermans, it’s clear to see why Ave’s mind, body and soul have remained in good health. 

Back when Ave first started taking photos on the streets, social media and mobile phones didn’t exist and people’s attitude to having their photographs taken was different. People didn’t shy away from a camera in the same way they do today, out of fear of an unflattering photo finding its way onto the internet. Not everyone feels so shy though, and many of Ave’s more recent photos include people playing up to the camera dressed in Halloween costumes and thriving on the attention.

Ave’s latest project is a documentation of Santa Monica Pier in California, a popular hotspot among buskers and street performers. “Some of them pay a fee to the city and others are just doing wild performances; they're the ones who are often chased off by police,” he tells me and I sense, that he is all for the rebellion. "I’ve realized it’ll probably take me a couple of years to get a good body of work” he continues, but considering the length of some of his other projects, that’s nothing to put Ave off. 

Ave's America

4 trannies (Image credit: Ave Pildas)

To have a career that’s lasted for more than sixty years and still have that passion to continue exploring, meeting new people and capturing new places is truly inspiring. Ave’s America is just a snapshot of the life of a photographer who has made a name for himself by being approachable, empathetic and completely non-judgemental of the people he’s photographing.

As we near the end of the call, Ave confesses that sometimes when he looks back on old photos he can’t understand why some didn’t make the cut. “I’ve forgotten what the criteria was now so sometimes I look at a photo I took 10, 20, or 30 years ago and think “oh that’s a good picture” so it gets another lease of life. 

There is no doubt Ave recognizes how lucky he is to be in this profession, but his success is well deserved. “I feel really blessed that I can continue to do what I do and I wish everybody could do that”.

Ave's America

Ave Pildas and journalist Kirk Silsbee look through Ave's photo archive  (Image credit: Ave Pildas)

Ave's America

(Image credit: Ave Pildas)

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Hannah Rooke
Staff Writer

Having studied Journalism and Public Relations at the University of the West of England Hannah developed a love for photography through a module on photojournalism. She specializes in Portrait, Fashion and lifestyle photography but has more recently branched out in the world of stylized product photography. For the last 3 years Hannah has worked at Wex Photo Video as a Senior Sales Assistant using her experience and knowledge of cameras to help people buy the equipment that is right for them. With 5 years experience working with studio lighting, Hannah has run many successful workshops teaching people how to use different lighting setups.