Interview by
Ricardo Carvalho



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Versatility and sensitivity. The work of Brian Kelly enchants us to perceive the true look of the artist or character photographed. From Eminem to Whoopi Goldberg, health to sports, it’s amazing to be able to realize the true value of understanding a powerful moment captured by turning the value of the image into a message.

Photo: © Brian Kelly / Instagram @briankellyphoto

Brian, before we start, please tell us a brief description of your career.

Answer: I started professionally in 1997 shooting commercial architecture for local architects, interior designers and night cityscapes in black and white (like my hero Brassai) for a small art gallery that I used to own in my hometown in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Over the years, my work gradually expanded into editorial, celebrity portraiture, advertising, and corporate commissions…plus directing lots of video projects now as well.

As a photographer, we understand that a career can change and be very different than we expected at the beginning, from the subject, from job types, from photographic styles and commissioned works. Tell us how you’ve decided to go further and work with portraits and commercial work.

I know it’s a cliché but I love the challenge of telling a story within a single frame. In our current age of being bombarded by Snapchat and Instagram “stories”, I think it’s incredibly challenging to create portraits that provoke the viewer’s curiosity and cause them to linger longer on an image. I’m constantly trying to figure out how to use lighting in meaningful ways to make my portraits more dramatic.

We noticed the very good job you’ve done on portraits for Anderson Cooper, Trevor Noah, Eminem, John Mulaney, Marlon Wayans, and Whoopi Goldberg. Tell us how you create the mood for a photography like that, and how you decide to use or not the post-production in each work.

In all of these examples, I had very limited time with the subjects; sometimes just 1-2 minutes. I only shot 14 frames with Whoopi and 16 frames with Anderson Cooper, so having a very thorough equipment and lighting plan with plenty of production time for setup and testing is crucial. After the shoot, I am always personally selecting the final images as well as working specifically on the color toning and “look” of the images. Depending on the level of retouching necessary for some faces, I’ll have my retoucher involved in finishing up the post-production.

"It’s incredibly challenging to create portraits that provoke the viewer’s curiosity and cause them to linger longer on an image."

Brian Kelly

Photo: © Brian Kelly / Instagram @briankellyphoto

What are the challenges to differentiate your work from other artists and trends as well?

I really try to avoid certain trends and stay true to my aesthetic preferences that are inherent in how I like to shoot. It’s tempting to mimic trends because I’m constantly watching the industry and you think that “they” prefer to see a certain trendy look that’s different than my own. But I believe following an authentic path in my lighting choices builds my confidence and allows me to focus on my engagement with the person that I’m photographing. I try to light people heroically. I’m not a photojournalist. I’m crafting a very narrow perspective of my portrait subjects that I want the audience to also feel and embrace when looking at my work.

What’s your perspective on how people are reacting to photography nowadays with Instagram, Snapchat etc? How could we bring back the value of photography that requires time and expertise to develop?

I love the word “craft.” I like the idea of working at something for 10,000 hours before you’re really any good at it because I feel its necessary to pay your dues in most creative practices. At the same time, I also love embracing the pace of new technologies. I love the fact that as photographers we’re able to engage with social platforms relatively easily and can expose our work to audiences that we were unable to reach just a few years ago. But craft and technical lighting skills are largely missing in most of the temporary trends. I feel there will always be demand for photographers that can merge their unique vision and lighting expertise.

You have a massive portfolio and nice work in the sports area too. As a photographer, what do you need to be cautious when changing subjects like that?

To stay really busy where I live in Michigan, I feel it’s important to be competent in portraiture and lifestyle work. I also shoot a lot of formal architectural work. With any given shoot I spend a lot of time with the agency or company to understand their specific brand pillars and determining which audiences they want to reach with the campaign I’m working on.

What advise will you share with the young photographers and people who like to take pictures?

Experiment with using strobes and other forms of artificial light to become more confident in learning how to control and harness light. Also spend some time assisting successful photographers that you admire. You’ll learn a lot. I never assisted anyone and I feel I really missed out on that early on in my career.

Show us some of the work that you liked most to work on and tell us why.

I love the challenge of shooting well-known people, but some of my favorite projects have been shooting real patients for the health care industry on location around the country. I try to light real people heroically on location…especially people who are survivors or battling something life-threatening.


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