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Essential Journal

Amy Winehouse in black and white by Richard Kelly


Richard Kelly has made a name for himself in the sprawling British music scene photographing the best of British talent over the past twenty five years. From being the official photographer for the Arctic Monkeys and the first person to take a media shot of Florence and the Machine before they rocketed to success, he prides himself on capturing the very essence of upcoming talent. Now, he’s put these shots up along with some never-before-seens in the Kimpton Clocktower in Manchester so we hitched a ride down the motorway and caught up with the man behind the camera…

Words & Interview By: Beth Bennett | Photography By: Richard Kelly

EJ: When/How did you start out with photography?

RK: I first got into photography when I worked at the Manchester Evening News as a messenger when I left school at 16. I used to see the photographers coming in dressed in their own clothes, no suits like everybody else. And their jobs would be something different every day; they’d go from shooting Oasis to Alex Ferguson at Man United and having that freedom really appealed to me.

From then, I started going to night school and was awarded a City & Guilds diploma in Photography which led to working in film labs and photography printers. Then, I pursued higher education and got a degree in Documentary and Fine Art Photography where I started to shoot up and coming bands for a bit of money and worked as an assistant for bigger photographers who took me on location around the world.

The experience of those was priceless. I feel like the technical skills I learnt with them, alongside my work in labs and darkrooms, taught me a huge amount about the craft and really gave me a solid foundation before striking up on my own.

EJ: How did you begin to develop your individual photographic style?

RK: There were two photographers in particular who I worked with, Gary Steer and Mary Scanlon, who taught me a lot about interacting with the subject of the photograph and how to make them feel comfortable and really get the best out of them. Their tutelage was really integral to informing my own personal practice. 

EJ: Can you talk a little bit about the relationship you have with music and photography?

RK: When I was growing up, I was always drawn to iconic shots of musicians and they’re what I really remember when I think about photography in my early life. The photographs of The Beatles and Rolling Stones by David Bailey and then Oasis by Jill Furmanovsky, they’re like ingrained into my memories.

So I’ve always had this very raw association of bands and their aesthetics/presentations. Then, as I got into photography myself I was drawn to going to raves in Manchester and shooting the club scenes, really leaning into that documentary style that captures the unified euphoric experience of live music.

This led to me getting work for Mixmag and other magazines which gave way to shooting more of the indie and up-and-coming bands in the North and, then, Britain as a whole. 

Black and white crowd shot by Richard Kelly

EJ: So can you talk a bit about the way you approach photographing talent then? 

RK: I approach talent the same way I approach anyone I meet. I think the worst thing you can do when preparing for a shoot and then during that shoot is to get in your head about it and be thinking ‘oh this person is…’. They’re just a person with a job. I think a lot of people, especially those who’ve got a bit of fame, they’re used to meeting people who want to know everything, or want to be a part of the world and be involved in the scene and see these meetings as a way to get in, so it can be quite overwhelming and alienating for these musicians and artists.

And as well, I think, there’s a level of a parasocialism, particularly with musicians, when people have shared all the different moments of their lives through their songs that invites a level of familiarity that obviously isn’t reciprocated. You never want to go to a shoot acting like you’re someone’s best mate or even with the intention to become their best mate. It’s good to be friendly and get to know each other, of course, but at the end of the day, we’re all just doing our jobs that pay our bills.

What I like to do is spend a bit of time talking through the shoot, even if it’s just five or ten minutes, throwing my ideas out there and allowing them to get a general feel for what we’re going to do. It helps create more of a two-way process where the person can communicate what they want out of the shoot as well and, ultimately, everyone is comfortable going into it.

Arctic Monkeys by Richard Kelly in black and white

EJ: What’s your advice for ensuring you can completely capture the personality of a person/subculture? 

RK: Like I said, it’s a two-way process, so being open to the collaborative aspect when someone is sharing their ideas with you…it shows a side to them that’s really quite lovely to capture. Of course, sometimes you’re working with someone and you may not have enough time to properly chat and have these moments, or maybe they’re not that open to some of your suggestions but as long as you’re making sure that they’re comfortable enough during the shoot, even with the little details of how you approach certain positions or angles, you’re going to see their character on the photograph.

Documentary photography is easier almost in that regard because you can blend into the moment, like a fly on the wall, and you’re seeing people with their guard down in moments of proper joy so as long as your settings are all good, all you have to do is press the shutter. 

EJ: I suppose my final question then is what drew you to the title ‘A Time and A Place’ for this exhibit?

RK: When Kimpton Clocktower Hotel approached me about the exhibition, we agreed that it was to be celebrating the musical heritage and prospective future of the music scene in Manchester.

What I wanted to do was use my platform to feature and then raise the profile of up-and-coming talent in this scene. So using my historical shots of the Arctic Monkeys and Amy Winehouse was really a bit of a lure in getting people to look at the recent portraits I’d done of the likes of Antony Szmierek and Akemi Fox who are Manchester locals that are on their way up.

In a way, it’s likening these newer artists to those that we now regard as British music royalty. It’s really about capturing people at a time and a place in their careers and reminding people that everyone has at this level once. Hopefully it’s introduced people to these new artists and they’ve left with some new tracks in their Spotify playlists. EJ

Richard Kelly’s exhibition has been extended due to popular demand. Find out more here.

Follow Richard on Instagram @rkellyphoto