The pandemic was a ‘reset’ button for Alabama photographer Ashley Vaughn
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Ashley Vaughn
Huntsville photographer Ashley Vaughn, right, and her husband Andy inside the couple's music store Vertical House Records.

Huntsville’s Ashley Vaughn is a popular wedding photographer in a year when the coronavirus upended weddings worldwide.

Brides downsized big ceremonies they’ve dreamed of for years, and wedding service providers like Vaughn found themselves doing more couples’ counseling than usual. She reminded her clients that the purpose of the ceremony hasn’t changed, just the size.

“You’re still going to get married,” she said.

“If anything, I hope this time has made people shift their perspective on why they’re getting married in the first place,” Vaughn said recently. “It’s because they love each other. That’s the most important thing, that bond between those two people.”

It’s helped her business that Vaughn has always specialized in today’s popular “elopements” with their short ceremonies, small audiences and unique settings. A bigger party for extended family and friends comes later, sometimes months later.

And like most photographers, Vaughn is good at adapting. She said her early anxiety quickly gave way to a hundred varieties of, “We could do this ….”

“I was pretty scared at first,” Vaughn said in April in the first of a series of interviews planned with this year. “I remember reading about it. I told (husband Andy Vaughn) the day the story broke about China that, ‘This doesn’t sound good.’ I followed it lightly, then more and more.”

That early read on the situation proved right. Vaughn’s pandemic Spring got serious when the wedding season almost vanished, and eventually she said COVID-19 would push the “reset button” on most of her life.

She experienced the scary “what ifs,” like everyone else.

“What if we can’t do anything anymore? What if the power goes off? What if we’re all fending for ourselves?” Vaughn remembered.

But her confidence came back.

“I’m also studying herbalism, so I was like, ‘I’ll be the medicine man,’” Vaughn said. “Andy’s really good at cooking, we’ve got a garden growing, we’ll be OK. We were picking people out of our families. They can do that. And they can do that.”

It hasn’t come to that. Vaughn is still working and has kept the “creative outlet” photography provides. She is finishing the third Huntsville edition of the popular nationwide “Scout Guide” to local small businesses. The guide meant working with editors to stage photo shoots with a lot of twisting and turning for social distancing. “Everyone’s been great,” she said late in May.

Vaughn’s White Rabbit Studios is in the Lowe Mill Arts and Entertainment Complex, an old shoe factory turned artist collective. She also does business in another Lowe Mill space where she and her husband own Vertical House Records.

“A year ago, we would have already had ‘Record Store Day,’ which is the busiest day easily,” she said at the store in May. Now, the capacity of the store is cut in half to 30 people, she said, “and we usually don’t hit that.”

“A year ago, we would be a little busier, but it’s nice to see regulars again,” she said. “We’ve missed them.”

The store gets records to online buyers, but regulars like to come and browse the bins. Seeing those regulars coming back was an early sign of Americans’ determination to get out of the house. “It’s a little different,” she said then, “but I appreciate the slow stroll back to normal. If there will be a normal again.”

Vaughn compared the pandemic to the April 27, 2011 tornadoes. It was the last event “that made everyone stop in their tracks.” She knows that tragedy was “very specific to Alabama, Mississippi and the South,” but it made people “stop and rethink everything.”

She’s realized that she loves her work, but “it was OK taking those days off, those months off. We did so much gardening and really reconnecting.”

“A lot of people have gotten disconnected,” Vaughn said. “It’s like go, go, go. Gotta be doing something. When was the last time we got to just sit and listen to the birds and watch the grass blow in the breeze?

“I know that sounds hippie-dippy,” she laughed. “But I think a lot of us need to do that, anyway. Stress levels were getting to people; we were working all the time.”

Vaughn isn’t heading to the farm anytime soon. The store and her work pay the bills, and husband Andy loves what he does. It is sometimes stressful not knowing where the next payday will come from, she said.

“But if you could set those thoughts aside, what were you thinking about?” she said of the shutdown time. “What meaning do you have on the planet? Why are we here? I already ask myself those questions all the time, and I had time to really think about it. I hope other people got some solace out of the solitude.”

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