If I were to tell Richard Kelly that he’s not just one of the most important and influential photographers that Manchester has produced, but the UK, he would more than likely tell me to ‘stop being ridiculous.’
That to me defines the incredibly humble, self-deprecating and down-to-earth nature of a man whose work will forever be ingrained into the very fabric of British culture.
For the last 25 years, Richard Kelly has been responsible for capturing some of the most iconic and celebrated images of artists and musicians that have defined an era and a generation.
The exhibition is the perfect marriage of nostalgia and the now, as portraits of Pete Docherty, John Cooper Clark, and Ian Brown hold hands with the likes of modern Mancunian acts: Akemi Fox and Anthony Szmierek.
Originally from Burnage Manchester, home of the Gallaghers, Richard’s career has seen him document the rise of the Arctic Monkeys, Florence + The Machine and Amy Winehouse.
His work is brought to life through an exhibition that is an extraordinary collection of unseen images, showcasing legendary artists and rising stars he has shot throughout his career. It is a true celebration of the past and it embraces the present, whilst looking to the future.
Following the unprecedented success of A Time & Place, which has run since June 1st, the Kimpton Clock Tower Hotel announced that the exhibition would be extended to the end of October, and will feature an additional two images of Amy Winehouse to mark what would have been the singer’s 40th birthday.
There is a reason why Richard has been at the forefront of his industry for over two decades. it’s not just a case of him being in the right place at the right time. It’s also a lethal cocktail of hard work, talent and a passion for photography that has propelled him into situations where he has captured moments in time that will live forever.
He is a photographer who isn’t led by ego, a silent observer, with an almost invisible lens, who is able to completely remove himself from focus and remain anonymous, which has allowed him to capture some of his most intimate and evocative images of artists throughout a distinguished career.
“I wasn’t into photography growing up,” explains Richard. “I come from a large Irish family originally from County Mayo and although there was a lot of creativity in my family (My brother Chris is a talented illustrator and very skilled carpenter) it certainly wasn’t one of those arty middle-class families where a rich uncle or friend of the family had cameras I could use or learn from. More’s the pity.
“It wasn’t until I left school and started working at the Manchester Evening News as a messenger delivering notes around the building (this is before email which makes me sound like I’m 100 years old) that I started to even consider photography.
“In that job, I got to go into the photo department to request whatever photos were needed for articles such as a shot of Ryan Giggs leaving the Hacienda worse for wear or a very early photo of Oasis (these are two of the more interesting examples by the way) as well as seeing the photographers come in and talk about what they’d been sent to photograph.
“One day it was Alex Ferguson with a new player, and the next it was some man standing next to a pothole looking stern. The fact that photographers wore their own clothes, weren’t tied to a desk, and had different jobs each day appealed massively so from there I started to go to Night School every wed evening doing a City & Guilds certificate in it.”
It would be fair to say that Richard Kelly has come a long way since those days on the shop floor. He’s done the hard yards and grafted himself into the ground going from job to job and jumping on tour buses to places unknown. It’s a journey that has taken him from Manchester to Miami and everywhere else in between. But he wouldn’t change any of it, apart from maybe stopping every once and a while to enjoy the moments he was creating.
His work has also extended to shooting the likes of John Hurt, Christopher Lee, and Lee Scratch Perry, as well as working on campaigns for Fred Perry, Dr. Marten, and Huawei. He is also now, a Senior Lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University teaching Fashion Art Direction.
Away from the camera lens, he’s an effortlessly fashionable chap with a wicked sense of humour and an almost encyclopedic knowledge of music. In fact, he recently introduced me to The Style Council’s,1989 deep house record, Modernism: A New Decade.
I had no idea that it existed and I don’t say this lightly, it’s possibly one of the best records I’ve listened to in recent times. Weller, 1989, house music…who knew??..well Mr. Kelly did of course. Frankly bringing this into my life makes all his other achievements pale into insignificance.
However, it’s photography that remains his one true love and he couldn’t imagine a life without it. It was an absolute pleasure to sit down with Richard as we spoke about his early years in the business, his biggest influences, witnessing the Arctic Monkeys for the first time and much more.
I Was Taking Portraits of anyone who would let me, making my mates pretend to be In a band so I could take photos
It was a long but really enjoyable process getting to the point where I could actually call myself a true photographer. I did the City and Guilds courses for two years.
Once I finished those I left The M.E.N. and went to work at a photo studio where housewives came to get glamourous photos done of themselves for their husbands. I’m not even sure if these places exist these days. They must do. There I worked in the lab processing the film and getting it mounted as slides so the sales team could sell the prints.
After two years of doing that, I went to work for a photographic printer in town doing contact sheets and processing film. It was a very well-respected printer so I was lucky enough to create the contact sheets for some Oasis singles (I recall a plane shot on Infa Red and a Suburban House shot by Micheal Spencer Jones.)
I learnt a lot about the technical aspects of photography including the art of Lith Printing, reciprocity, pushing film in developer, and loads more highly geeky stuff. It really was an in-depth invaluable learning curve for me. Alongside this job, I was shooting myself in my spare time. Portraits of anyone who would let me, making my mates pretend to be a band so I could take band photos, raves, anything basically.
I got to the point where I didn’t want to become a printer working on other people’s work I wanted to be creating my own so I started to assist some of the photographers that came into the printers. That for me was the next stage to becoming one myself.
At this point, I had also saved up enough money to go to Uni to study photography (I did Documentary and Fine Art Photography via John Moores in Liverpool). The three years of assisting and working on my own style of photography gave me time to hone my craft (I feel well pretentious just typing that but it’s true.)
The early days were fun but intense
When I think back now to when I had graduated and I was shooting commissioned work I recall how consumed I was with photography. Don’t get me wrong I still love it and take photos constantly but back then I was obsessed with getting work, shooting whatever I could, whoever I could, and working with as many people as I could. Nowadays I’m a lot more choosy! Not doing it as a job forever was never an option.
I remember looking through the NME seeing who was playing at the Apollo Academy or wherever and going and waiting at the stage door during the day for sometimes hours when I knew the bands would be sound checking. That’s how I ended up shooting Lee Scratch Perry and John Copper Clarke.
The early days were fun but intense as I would be shooting a PR job in the day, then shooting a band or a rave then going to London for a meeting about a potential job via the Megabus as I was skint. Then it would be back that same evening to get back in time for the morning to go do another shoot or meeting.
It was exhausting in hindsight but I was in my early 20’s at this point and it was a huge part of my social life as well as my working life. I never thought “This is difficult” as such as I was always thinking about my next Photography job or project.
it would be nice to go back in time and tell myself to enjoy them more and stop worrying
There have been loads of moments where I look back now and think that was a great opportunity or I was lucky doing that but at the time it was all so fast-paced it went past in a blur.
I remember assisting fashion photographers and spending three weeks at a time in Miami on shoots, coming home to wash my clothes then going back out on another three-week shoot to Cape Town then Miami again with a different fashion photographer shooting on beaches and by pools in the day and partying with models and the creative team in the evening It was a lot of fun as you can imagine.
There were also shoots I did that at the time that I knew were great opportunities but I was always thinking of the next job so it would be nice to go back in time and tell myself to enjoy them more and stop worrying.
I remember their first song “Fake Tales of Francisco” and thinking yes they are going to be massive
There have been a few bands I’ve shot where I knew from the very first moment they would do well and Arctic Monkeys were one of them. I was sent up to Sheffield by Dazed and Confused Magazine to shoot them for a one-page article (this was before they’d released anything) and I met them at their rehearsal room.
I asked Alex what they sounded like and he said “We’ll play you a few songs,” which they did. It was weird being the only person they were playing to but I remember their first song “Fake Tales of Francisco” and thinking yes these are going to be massive. You could just tell. I really liked the band and although all I needed was one set-up for the article I spent most of the day with them shooting them in various parts of the rehearsal space and outside.
The magazine could have done a 10-page article with what I gave them in the end. The band liked me and the way I worked so I shot all their official shots over the next few albums.
It was always a pleasure working with them and it was great to shoot more candid backstage stuff as well as posed press shots of them. It was a career highlight.
I don’t think I’ll ever lose the fear of thinking no one is going to turn up
The Exhibition at The Kimpton Clock Tower Hotel is called A Time & Place and features some of my music work that I’m well known for John Copper Clarke, Arctics, Amy, Ian Brown, and others alongside new Manchester Talent such as Akemi Fox and Antony Szmierek.
I wanted to include new work as it’s important for me not to become a heritage act wheeling out the same old photos plus Manchester has some amazing new artists at the moment and I wanted to showcase them.
The response to the exhibition has been amazing. Even better than I could have hoped for. So much in fact that it’s been extended past its original end date and will now run until the end of October at least. Because of this, I have added two further images of Amy Winehouse as it would have been her birthday on the 14th Sep and a new book is due out that features my image of her that’s in the exhibition.
I’ve had a few exhibitions so far in my career and I still find it nerve-wracking leading up to the launch. I don’t think I’ll ever lose the fear of thinking no one is going to turn up or if they do that they won’t like the work.
It’s scary putting yourself out there. All I can do to get over it is tell myself that I like the work and if no one else does well that’s on them.
In terms of my work and picking out a favourite piece I find that really hard to do as I have looked at it so much that sometimes I can’t even see it if that makes sense?
I go through phases of thinking some of my Arctic Monkeys images are okay then I see a shot of them by someone else and I’m then critical of my own.
The shots of Lee Scratch Perry that are in the exhibition are ones I look at fondly as I remember the shoot with him vividly as I only had him for about 5 minutes and shot one roll of 35mm before he was wheeled off by his wife. The whole contact sheet is just him pulling faces.
I can’t imagine not taking photographs!
I’ve been a photographer now for 25 years which is a long long time. I’ve seen the industry change massively. In some ways for the better as having social media now means you can find bands so much more easily.
In some ways, it makes it harder as it’s now not as simple as hanging around waiting for bands to soundcheck as even unsigned bands seem to have PR and Managers and people who’ll stop you from photographing them.
Alongside photography, I am now a Senior Lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University teaching Fashion Art Direction which I love. I really enjoy lecturing and talking to the students about fashion, and art, and how these two things inform one another. It’s been great to see students graduate and go on to become photographers in their own right.
I am still hugely motivated by photography. I think it’s the one thing that keeps me sane and I am always taking photographs. During lockdown when things came to a standstill I would spend the evenings walking for hours taking photographs of Manchester which led to a collaboration and publication with an illustrator which was a first.
I can’t imagine not taking photographs! I still love shooting music but I can’t be arsed spending time on tour buses these days, to be honest. If the right band comes along and I like them then who knows though?
I’ve always been fascinated by where photography is at right now
I still shoot commercially for advertising and Fashion which keeps me busy when I’m not teaching and I planning for another exhibition that isn’t music-related but I don’t want to say anymore in case I jinx it.
I’m currently planning a couple of exhibitions: one very personal on a small scale and one larger than I mentioned above. I hope the former will be towards the end of this year and the latter early next year. Apart from these, I’m continuing to shoot bands, fashion, advertising, and personal project work.
In terms of the Ultimate Project, I’d love to do a long-term portrait documentary project where I embed myself in a subculture/movement or political group. I’m currently working on a research-related project at the university, which if successful will be a long-term ongoing body of work that would be something along these lines so fingers crossed it happens.
There are photographers I look up to such as William Eggleston who had a huge impact on me when I was at Uni and that led me on to the likes of Arthur Tress but for me, I’ve always been fascinated by where photography is at right now so I am currently loving the work of Arielle Bobb Willis, Rottingdean Bazar, and my all-time current fave Max Siedentopf.
It’s also great to see up-and-coming Manchester-based photographers like Chelsea Mulcahy doing well and whose work I think is amazing.
With thanks to the absolute gentleman that is Richard Kelly
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