In conversation with Richard Kelly by Edward Murray
Monday, July 13, 2020
Mr. Richard Kelly has been teaching photography for more than 15 years, and in 2018, launched the Richard Kelly Experience photography workshops for artists and enthusiasts of all ages.
My first day of Studio Lighting class, Mr. Kelly went down the roster, calling each person by name, looking into the twenty or so people, and knew exactly where they were, he knew each person, until he got to my name. I was the only one who had not taken a class with him. He went over some techniques and then the class ended, we were supposed to bring our camera to the next class.
The second meeting of the class, he still didn’t know my name, until we started talking cameras as a group. I was the only person with a film camera, I was unsure if he was impressed, or his look was expressing that I should not have been in this course.
When I was a kid, I wanted to be an instrument. I knew I couldn’t sing or play the guitar, the only thing I was good at was doing bad. I have always had a love for drawing, writing and photography.
The end of 2019, I got to interview him. The interview and especially the last two questions and answers helped me put several things into focus (pun intended). The class, the people in the class, the technical skills, the interaction of the class he fostered and just knowing him, has made me a better artist. I was meant to be in that class. I hope you take some time to read the interview.
E.M.: What is photography to you?
R.K.: I used to think that photography was something I did. I now realize that photography is the way I see, speak, love, eat, and interact with friends (and strangers). I am photography, and photography is me.
E.M.: What is your personal history with being a photographer?
R.K.: As a young boy, my mother surrounded us with creative activities. Painting, singing, make-believe playing, and reading - a lot of books. My father was a mechanic, and I am sure he didn't see himself as a creative. However, I now realize that he, too, was insightful and innovative - figuring out how things worked and creative problem-solving. They laid my foundation for photography — a mix of practical and creative tools and techniques.
I discovered photography at the local library. I was reading my way around the bookshelves, and one afternoon stumbled upon the photography books. I remember checking out as many books as they would allow me too. Sometimes over and over again. Then I wanted a camera, but my parents told me that photography was for rich people and if I wanted a camera I would have to find a way to pay for it myself. In the meanwhile, I picked up a Kodak Instamatic camera and started to save my newspaper delivery route money to buy my first camera. It took me a while and cost $150. The camera was a Minolta SRT-202 with a 50 mm 1.8 lens. I hung around the camera store so much that when I was 16, they finally gave me a job.
Another tangent to my story is that to buy the film, I started taking pictures for money. I had my first assignment the weekend after I purchased my camera - photographing a grand opening of a municipal building. With that money, I bought a darkroom set up - an enlarger and the whole thing. After my dad saw that I was taking photography seriously, he and I built a darkroom, and I used that space until they sold their house in the early 2000s.
For me making photographs and making money are intertwined.
E.M.: Why did you become a photographer?
R.K.: It was the only thing I wanted to do - career-wise. I was fortunate along the way to have people who mentored me. I also had excellent teachers who gave me confidence. One professor at RIT told me, as I was leaving the photography program, "to stay out of the studio and focus on the people that's what you do." His words ring true for me even now. My grandmother told me that my taking pictures of people made so much sense to her because, as a child, I would ask people I met - strangers- who they were and what they did. Which is pretty much my life's work to this day.
E.M.: Was there another career path before photography?
R.K.: Nope - I am not even sure what else I could do.
E.M.: What is the difference between a fine art photographer and a photographer?
R.K.: Until recently, I hadn't thought much about it. Although I had many good teachers, photographer mentors, and friends who are artists, I see photography as a lifelong learning opportunity.
From my perspective, the term fine art photographer, although used by some in the past, today has a whole new meaning. From what I can see, "Fine Art Photographer" is more of a brand description.
It seems like another way to divide artists rather than include them. I was recently introduced to a group of academics- people who primarily teach photography - as a commercial photographer - which I am sure was not meant as a put-down, however for the duration of the event, without knowing anything about me the participants characterized me as something other than an artist. As though teaching - often for meager wages - was somehow a justification for their work as "Fine Art Photographers."
With age comes experience. And I am solidly in my fifties now; I see the world as I do some things for money, and I do some things for pleasure. As a photographer, I sometimes teach, I sometimes make pictures for clients, and I sometimes make pictures to satisfy something inside of me.
In 2019 "Fine Art Photography" is a business; it is commercial - the same way that music, filmmaking, theater, writing is all commercial. You create for money. "Fine Artists" today need marketing plans: sales tax numbers, accountants, and lawyers.
Rather than be divisive, I would rather be inclusive and be a "photographer." Duane Michals told me once that you have to have money to make personal photographs. Whether you are a janitor or a photographer, do that work well so that you have the resources to create the pictures you "have to make."
Before the interweb, photographers had few options to show personal work. Books, magazines, newspapers, exhibitions and the walls of your studio and these were often expensive to do. With only so many pages and walls available - in marketing terms, space was scarce! Now with the internet and digital products as well as communities of like-minded artists, the opportunity to show your work and get recognized is limitless. Photographers, I thought of as "Fine Artists" Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Garry Winogrand, Irving Penn - photographers I would see in museums, for instance. Many of them had worked commercially. They showed their personal projects in these limited spaces. But there was only room for a few photographers.
I think that magazines and books are the media that showcases photography the best. My favorite photographers were in books — Duane Michals, Robert Frank, Arnold Newman, and they were all commercial photographers.
I am a photographer; I solve visual problems for publishers, organizations, and advertising agencies. Sometimes I take photographs for me. Sometimes those are published or exhibited, and occasionally someone likes it enough to hang it on their wall.
The "world" of collecting photography is young and small. But art photography is in a period of adolescent puberty, and we will see how these teenage years progress. Can "Fine Art Photographers" sustain the number of photographers who want to play in that sandbox?
E.M.: Do you foresee any industry trends for future photographers?
R.K.: Photography, to me, is elastic. I also see photography beyond a service. Over the past 20 years, photography has become so ubiquitous that literally, everyone is doing it. We communicate through photography in a way that George Eastman could never have imagined. But that is not your question — Let's divide photography into segments.
[I define photography as short moving images (multi-frame) as well as still (single frame) images as photography. Longer form moving images are motion pictures, and that is a related but different form.] I think photography and photographers capture important moments in history and family events. Family portraits/weddings will survive to some degree as long as the middle class is able to afford these services otherwise “uncle bob” will be there with his smartphone camera. Journalism and reportage needs to survive for the republic to survive but a new viable business model is necessary to keep news/documentary photography as a vibrant profession. (a topic in and of itself.)
Commercial photography for advertising and marketing - I see this as diminishing into a new job description into a “content creator” who does motion pictures and photographs, their skill set will be very different from today's photographer. We are already starting to see this trend in e-commerce photography studios.
I think this sector may survive as an art form and communication tool because we as photographers have something to say, and with automation, we will have more time to say it.
Whether it is sustainable as a career, I think, has more to do with the overall economy and how we as a society deal with the “Future of Work.” I believe in the next five years; our society will see such an incredible dynamic change in how we work and how we play. Photographers will be there to document this change and, more important, to us, express how we feel and think about this transformational change. The early 21st century is photography from surveillance to communication, commerce, and art.
It is the golden age of photography.
E.M.: What advice would you give to someone wanting to be a photographer with a focus on art?
R.K.: Do it because you have to - because it is your calling to serve.
Say what needs to be said.
Speak your truth from the gut.
Speak less from your mind.
If you have to explain what you are doing in an artist statement longer than two short paragraphs, start over.
And finally, create for yourself.
E.M.: What advice would you give to a younger you?
R.K.: The two best pieces of advice I ever received was to marry well and do what you love, and you will never work a day in your life. I married my best friend. She has a great career that provides our family with a stable lifestyle, including company-based health insurance.
Pittsburgh is not a growing commercial photography market - nothing like a New York or Los Angeles market. However, Pittsburgh is a much better city to have a family and live an artist's life than some other cities. I moved back to Western Pennsylvania after living and working in South Florida and New York City, I traveled the globe and have produced projects throughout the United States. I was able to return to Pittsburgh in the mid-'90s with an appreciation for what Pittsburgh was and what Pittsburgh could be. I knew I would have some influence on that. The region has matured wonderfully, but we have a long way to go. There is a lot of talk about "Eds and Meds" and let's not underplay the tech and robotics startups, but the real change was because of art, artists, and creative thinking. I was here and a part of that, and looking back, I realize there was never a guarantee it would play out this way. Having said that, Pittsburgh is not a market to sell art in. And there are significant gaps between the "haves and the have not's." We have work to do as a region. I want to be a part of that transition too.
While living In Pittsburgh, I have created several opportunities for myself. I worked as the Director of Photography at WQED multimedia, creating a state of the industry photography department and internship program. I designed and taught several courses at Pittsburgh Filmmakers, including a business course for visual artists. And although teaching was not something I imagined doing, I do love it. After the Pittsburgh Filmmaker's academic programs ended, I created the Richard Kelly Experience workshops, and I see these continuing for a long time. The interaction between enthusiasts and artists exploring the world around us is exciting to witness.
To summarize, yes, I think you can create a career out of photography; it will be creatively satisfying and, at times, "bang your head against the wall" frustrating. Each artist in practice creates the world they want to live and work in, and that is just what we do.
Save money to create time to work on personal projects.
“It’s” not about you.
Your commercial work will have no value beyond its original intention.
Be authentic always.
Several years later, after taking his photography course, I found out he was an accomplished film photographer including being the Director of Photography for WQED documenting Mr. Rogers. I never really read his bio, until after this interview, and am very impressed though more impressed with who he is as an artist and teacher.
Richard Kelly, Photographer, Filmmaker & Educator
Whether it is photographs for magazines or motion picture projects for the web or social media, Richard Kelly shapes the stories around us with the art of photography.
For the last 30 years, Richard has added the color to our favorite stories, the personality to advertisements and the polish to professional portraits.
Richard is a prolific artist, a leader in the photography community and a respected educator and speaker.
Richard was the President of the American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP)-(2009-2011) and received the United Nations International Photographic Council Leadership Award in 2011 for his advocacy related to photography and copyright. He was the Director of Photography for WQED and Pittsburgh Magazine (2003-2007). Richard is currently the President of Indigo Factory, Inc.
In 2009 he received the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Fellowship for his Artists and Scientists project which has been published and exhibited in numerous venues. His photographs are in private and public collections including the Carnegie Museum of Art, the Gallery for the Foundation for Autoimmunity Institute at West Penn Hospital, Tri-State Capital Bank, the Allegheny County Family Courts, the Senator John Heinz History Center and the Photography Museum of Lishui, China.
Lastly, I would also like to share, while taking the class with Richard Kelly, we had model at class, I knew my shutter speed was off, I was upset with the results and was going to toss the negatives. Richard Kelly (forever the optimist) thought the results were cool, he said I could maybe flip the negatives and create a mirror image or do something with them. I was very inspired on his take of my mistake. After about a years' worth of work (enlarging the negative size on to new negatives, contact printing in cyanotype and then finishing in blue/ silver silk-screening incorporating my drawings), and learning from other great mentors, I finished:
It is easy to see the forest through the trees especially when no one told you it was impossible. No one told a raindrop it could be a lake, no one told me I could be whatever I wanted to be when I grew up. I was shown how everything is possible through hard work. Each drop of sweat is like a silver raindrop. Exploration and Implementation has created me, like rain. It takes ten thousand raindrops to make one river, one waterfall, one lake. I find myself watching reflections of the tree lines on the shores of lakes. It takes ten thousand raindrops to make one flower, one tree, one person.
There is no such thing as a gift without a problem, the problems created in my art, created gifts. It is a rarity when I can trace the path when it comes to the influences of work, I know how this work came to be, thank you Mr. Richard Kelly for this interview and for all the mentorship.