Fine art photographer Tony Kelly on his unique signature style
Photographer Tony Kelly’s pop art colours and daring subjects have put him front and centre of the art world
Tony Kelly has been described as ‘the Irish Fellini of photography’. By turns cinematic, stylish, theatrical and sexy, Kelly’s fine art collection is a blissful brew of colour and gloss. Little wonder, then, that the 41-year-old’s cheeky style has promptly brought him to the attention of the world’s art affcionados.
Starting life as a teenage photojournalist for the Independent News Group, Kelly (who has also been likened to Helmut Newton) has encountered everything from the grittiness of Dublin streets and war in Rwanda to the glamour of the fashion scene. In a career that has spanned three decades, Kelly’s photographs have appeared in Vanity Fair, Vogue, GQ and L’Officiel. His work in advertising has seen him shoot for brands like Louis Vuitton, Campari, BMW and American Apparel. He’s also a go-to snapper in the celebrity world – shooting the likes of Emily Ratajkowski, Scott Eastwood, Snoop Dogg, Bruno Mars, Demi Lovato and Justin Bieber.
Tempus: Your start in fashion photography was probably an incongruous one, as you started out as a photojournalist?
Tony Kelly: Yeah, I got a job at the Evening Herald newspaper at 19 – the youngest photographer to be employed there. I worked obsessively, covering night shoots, murders, sports, the lot. I wanted to cover the war in Rwanda, but my bosses were like: “you can’t go, you’re freelance”. So I went out under my own steam. Later, I joined News International, and it was one of the most glorious experiences of my professional life. It was a hectic pace, but I loved every moment of it.
Not long after leaving photojournalism, you set about developing your own singular look. How easy was it to do that?
It’s a complicated process. How do you create something staged that looks spontaneous? Firstly, the ideas come from, say, driving around Sunset Boulevard or sitting out on a ski slope. After that, I visualise the image and figure out how to achieve it. I also love cinematography – the visual language of a movie. I take a lot of inspiration from old advertising from the 60s and 70s. For me it’s always been about entertainment.
Still, making that move into the great unknown, after years of a solid career, must have taken some bravery?
I quit my job and moved to Barcelona to assist Jose Manuel Ferrater. I remember experimenting with studio lights and doing these typical fashion photos. I took them to Jose, desperate for his approval. He looked at them, shrugged and said, ‘you’ll earn an okay living with that stuff ’. What he said next changed my life: ‘Coming from a photojournalism background gives you a huge advantage. You have something most people haven’t got, so apply it’. So I changed tack. I brought models into crazy situations and photographed them with that approach. Even though I had incorporated a reportage approach to my work, I still wasn’t happy. I needed it to become more staged, more controlled, more theatrical.
Describe a shoot that stands out for you.
I love the image of Amanda Booth on the nose of a Boeing 737 that I shot in the Mojave Desert. I convinced her it was okay to sit on the cone of the plane. There was a safety team nearby with a cherry-picker crane, on hand to help if she slipped, but little by little, I told them to take the crane away so that essentially, she was on her own up there. She’s a seasoned pro – she knows the game and she pulled it off brilliantly. I had her up there for about 10 or 15 minutes. It was risky, but I always say, if there’s no risk, there’s no reward.
What are your plans for the future? Is there anything else you’d like to achieve?
At the moment, I’m going back to LA to direct some commercials. I’ve some fairly conceptual ones coming up. After that, I’ll be spending most of my energy shooting for my next collection. We had amazing interest in our limited edition Summer Collection prints so I’m looking forward to sharing the next collection. I have two big shoots lined up in the next six months. I’ll be working on a new book in Miami, and will be exploring further ways to enhance the fine art collection. I’m constantly pushing forward in that respect – it’s like being an athlete, striving to improve your game. I reinvest the money from the fine art sales into further work.