Mike Kelley Interview
Mike Kelley is an American photographer specializing in architecture. After studying studio art and environmental science, he moved to California, where he started learning the craft of photography by practicing with real estate and through traveling the world for personal projects. Kelly blends his interests in architecture, infrastructure and art in his subjects and photographic productions, with the online courses ‘Where Art meets Architecture’ on fstoppers.com. His personal and commercial work are regularly featured in leading industry publications, have received awards and participated in exhibitions. With influences from Dutch landscape painters and Scandinavian graphic design, Kelley is constantly experimenting and advancing his approach to better serve the medium and his commissions.
Pygmalion Karatzas: Mr. Kelley thank you for accepting the invitation to discuss and show some of your work with us here at arcspace. Could you tell us about your background and how you became involved with architectural photography?
Mike Kelley: I met my first client after a snowboarding accident while I was living in Lake Tahoe. I was living the snowboard bum life, making about $7.25 an hour in a rental shop measuring people’s foot to put ski boots on them. After an injury that led to me getting about 15 stitches in my forehead, I met someone through a mutual friend who offered to let me crash at her home for the night after I got home from the ER. In addition to snowboarding, I was also very interested in art – I minored in studio art and jazz bass for undergrad (my major was environmental studies and urban planning) which was like the ultimate do-nothing one-two combo when I graduated at the absolute bottom of the recession in 2009. As we chatted, she said – “oh – you’re a photographer?!” and while I wouldn’t quite say I was a photographer at that point, I knew how a camera worked, and she offered to let me shoot one of her properties as a test. Turns out she was a real estate agent + developer working high end properties in the Tahoe area. Anyway, I went online and learned as much as I could about photographing homes. Use a tripod, keep the vertical lines straight, don’t go too wide – and when that first gig came around I guess I did well enough because I kept getting hired to shoot more and more homes. I was charging around $200-$500 per house at those rates, which was a lot of money to me as a broke snowboarder. I stayed in Lake Tahoe for a couple more years but kept injuring myself snowboarding which was incredibly frustrating. A herniated disc here, torn AC ligament there, and wasn’t really making enough money to justify pursuing snowboarding, so after one particularly awful injury, decided straight away that I was going to move to Los Angeles to give photography a try. I hardly knew anything about LA, let alone where to live or how to get work, but with a dwindling bank balance I had to make it happen. I went door-to-door introducing myself to home builders, developers, realtors, architects, interior designers, furniture makers, anyone who could even tangentially use photographs of some architecturally related product. I could drag this out and tell you every gory detail, but over the years, a combination of great luck, good preparation, endless devotion to craft (think Friday nights shooting architecture on my own instead of trying to meet girls, etc), soaking up every piece of literature about the business of photography, and ten years later I’ve got a pretty great career. The camera has been my passport to the world – I’ve traveled around the globe for commissioned and personal work, seen some of the craziest shit you can imagine, and get to photograph the most beautifully designed objects for a living – I’m constantly just looking at beautiful stuff and it’s absolutely inspiring. At this point have no idea what else I would do.
PK: Could you describe your overall photographic vision and approach?
MK: Most importantly, trying to communicate a sense of place, a mood, a feeling – that’s really what I go for when photographing a subject. If it’s a cold rainy day, I’m going to play that up – I’m going to work to make more tempestuous, almost stormy photographs. If we’re shooting in Los Angeles and there’s golden soft light washing over everything – I’m going to use that sun to show the viewer how it feels to be there; which would be warm, open, calming. I love trying to approach architecture as more of a landscape painter, because I think the best landscape artists are really incredible at communicating mood and color in their art. And people really identify with those images, whether or not they are an architect. In addition to this, I really pay a lot of attention to the shapes, forms, and materials that are present in the project. Architects can spend so much time and energy on proportion, sightlines, massing, rhythm, etc, and it’s very important to me that I am able to capture that in my photographs. Of course, not every picture can effortlessly show all of these things at once – but when you are able to get the shot that has mood, color, rhythm, proportion, material – oh boy. Those are the shots that really drive me and I try to get a few of them on every project. It’s absolutely easier said than done and requires both good planning and a dash of luck.
PK: One of your first self-initiated projects was to photograph the built environment in Iceland and became a milestone for your development. Can you tell us more about that project?
MK: Back in 2007 Sigur Rós’ documentary film Heima was released which absolutely fascinated me and kickstarted an interest in nordic landscapes and music, I absolutely had to go see this all for myself. My first trip to Iceland was in 2009, where I began exploring as a normal tourist; photographing landscapes and a few interesting buildings. Over the next few years as I became more interested in architecture, I decided to return to focus solely on photographing the local architecture of Iceland. My aim here was to build a portfolio of great architecture, stuff that we don’t normally get in the states. I had an idea that if I filled my portfolio with the type of architecture that I wanted to shoot, I would be hired to shoot more of that. During those trips, I met some incredible architects who were generous enough with their time to show me around and give tips on what to photograph, and taught me a lot about their design process and approaches which informed my photographs in ways I couldn’t quite understand at the time. This was before Iceland became utterly ubiquitous as a tourist and photography destination as a result of the huge ‘instagram boom’ it underwent in the last five or six years. I don’t think the project would have been nearly as successful as it was if I had gone today, so the timing was very fortuitous for the whole thing. The trip showed me the value of personal projects as a way to make connections and cultivate a portfolio of unique images – I’m still using a few of those shots from 2009-’12 in my portfolio today.
PK: How do you approach a project from the communication with the client, to the on-site photo shoot, to the editing of the final selection of images? Tell us a bit more about your process in the various stages of architectural photography.
MK: There’s really no set rule or approach that I have. In a perfect world I’d be able to meet with all of my clients, have a sit-down meeting to learn more about the project, get to scout the project the day before, etc. But honestly it’s all over the place. Sometimes I’m showing up to a huge project site unseen and need to pull a rabbit out of a hat, and sometimes I have 6 months of lead time and get to scout it multiple times to find the best light, the best angles, etc. Of course it goes without saying that I want to communicate the general formal qualities, themes, and uses of the building. I also want to show the architect something that they haven’t seen or anticipated – I love when I’m able to deliver something that gets a reaction like “I have spent 5 years working on this project, and never thought about it that way, and I absolutely love it!” So because of this we try to stick to a loose ‘shot list’ that by the halfway point of the shoot is riddled with strikethroughs, cross outs, and new ideas scribbled in corners. I love how architecture reveals itself to you as you spend more time in it and this process of discovery is crucial to me as I shoot; it’s especially great when you and the client are on the same page and equally excited about the new ideas that come into play as you tick off the boxes on the shot list.
Whether or not I get to meet the client and scout, (I’ve had a few jobs where I haven’t even talked to the client on the phone let alone met them), I try to make a plan based on a few different things. I’ll use apps such as LightTrac and Sunseeker, along with plenty of basic knowledge of sun and weather patterns, to come up with a rough idea of where I want to be and when. In addition, I also have to take into consideration building materials, reflectivity, whether the building is in an urban or rural setting, whether we’re using models or props, what kind of emotion or mood I want to convey in the final images, who the client is, how they are going to use the images, and so on. If we aren’t starting with a time-sensitive morning shot, I’ll usually try to get warmed up with a softie first. My first shot of the day is always a time for me to get any kinks worked out and get everyone woken up and caffeinated. It’s important to get the whole team on the same page so that’s the time for it. After that, I’ve found that 99% of the time I get into a nice rhythm with the client and production team if there is one. I’ve heard the analogy that working with me is kind of like working with a freight train…takes a while to get going but once it’s moving, impossible to stop! When it comes to post production, one way I differ from other photographers (I think, at least) is that I don’t do a round of ‘selects’. Essentially, if we set the camera up and spend time propping and creating an image, the client is having that photo delivered. So everything I shoot gets sent over in its fully edited form, and from there the client can choose to edit things further or take them as they are. I found that I got stuck in traps of sending contact sheets to clients who would take a month to make their selections, and then another month to get back to me about the edits, and yikes – it just took forever. So this has really sped things up and makes sure that jobs wrap up in a decent amount of time.
PK: Which are some of the influences to your photographic work and in what ways have they affected your approach?
MK: Since I come from more of a fine art background than a photography background, my biggest influences are probably landscape painters and graphic designers. Oh god – Dutch landscape painters, put me in a museum in Amsterdam and I’ll spend all day there. That’s what I’m talking about when I mention mood and feeling – it’s absolutely palpable in those paintings (for example, check out the Dutch golden age paintings). And I love good graphic design, especially the stuff coming out of Scandinavia. They always seem like they are on the cutting edge and their work is so fresh and memorable. Architectural photography is somewhat like graphic design with a camera, so it makes sense to pay attention to what graphic designers are doing and how they are arranging elements in a scene to create visual harmony and beauty. We have to do almost the same thing, yet in a three-dimensional environment – we can move the camera and objects in the scene to re-arrange shapes and color, just as designers do. In addition, I think the music I listen to has something to do with my style…I’m really into some super mellow stuff. Brian Eno, Sigur Rós, Bright Eyes, Death Cab For Cutie – lots of ambient and let’s say ’emo’ for lack of a better word, makes up my playlist and I’m sure over time it’s rubbed off on me. I like these wide, airy, sprawling compositions and for some reason I have a hunch that my taste in music and taste in photography are working in tandem. As far as photography goes, there are a few big names I absolutely love – Burtynsky, Crewdson, Gursky all stick out as influences. I can get lost in their work for hours. Anyone who has done something truly unconventional sticks out, as well. Michael Christoper Brown’s work in Libya – holy shit. He photographed the Libyan revolution on an iPhone and the book he made almost gave me an existential crisis. Arthur Mebius’ work in North Korea photographing their national airline, Air Koryo. Utterly mind-blowing and so, so well done. Ragnar Axelsson spending months at a time in Greenland following Inuit as they hunt Greenland shark and seal; his book ‘Faces of the North’ has been a big inspiration. I love these photographers who find these incredible stories and adventures (but definitely not that new brand of instagram adventure photographer – so gaudy!) and I think I try to sprinkle that into my architectural photography in some weird abstract way. I may disappoint some people with this answer but I try not to look at other architectural photographer’s work too much. I find it creeps in and subconsciously starts changing the way I shoot, because it’s like “oh, this other successful guy is using these lights and this camera, let me try to emulate that and maybe I’ll be successful like him…” I hate that! I think I own like two or three books that primarily focus on architecture photography, but I just have stacks and stacks of other stuff.
PK: One of your personal projects is ‘LA Airspace’ documenting Los Angeles from a helicopter with 30 flights over two years covering the massive sprawl of the city. Can you tell us more about this project?
MK: I wish the origin story for this project was more interesting, but it was pretty simple. I’ve always been in love with aviation, and a friend who was a helicopter pilot invited me up for a flight. I thought it would be a good opportunity to take my camera along (obviously!) and was absolutely smitten with what I saw. Los Angeles, a city of crumbling infrastructure, traffic, and unwalkable streets, is absolutely fascinating from above. The sun creates this amazing patchwork quilt of streets and low-rise architecture, accentuates the serpentine curves of the freeways, and rakes across the endless rows of houses interrupted by mountains – beautiful from the sky. Add in the haze and smog with its glow, and the whole thing is just ripe for photographing. As a completely unknown photographer at the time, I wanted to begin to get my name out there and thought a book would be a good way to go about it. I approached a few publishers but was very unhappy with the terms they were offering (at least they were offering something, ya know? This let me know that the material was good enough) but I knew I’d be giving up a lot of control both creatively and in terms of layout. So I decided to do it via Kickstarter. It was, to put it lightly, a huge pain in the butt. If I knew how much work it was, I would have never done it, but now that I’ve done it, it seems easy, you know what I mean? It took my girlfriend and I basically 2 solid months of work to get everything wrapped up and completed, I couldn’t have ever done it alone and I severely underestimated how much work it was to bring a professional book to market. That being said – I’m still glad I kept control over everything. I love the final product and I learned so much in the process.
PK: Could you tell us your thoughts about the matter of a personal style/approach in relation to the broader currents in architectural photography?
MK: I think a personal style is highly important and almost paramount in this business. With as many photographers as there are, you’ve got to have something that sets you apart. Whether it’s the way you approach composition, color, or using models and scale, you simply can’t just emulate others and expect to be successful. The great thing is that there is room at the top for a multitude of styles, as we see with people like Iwan Baan taking a very documentary approach with minimal post production and then someone like Nick Merrick who is doing all sorts of location lighting and styling – a much different, more measured approach to photographing architecture. And there are so many styles in between that are different in their own way. The one thing that is consistent is that they are all being hired to bring their vision to the shoot, not just make a Xerox of the space from a corner.
PK: What photographic gear and post-processing workflow do you use and what are your thoughts about their role in the creative process?
MK: I use Canon DSLRs with their 17 and 24mm tilt-shifts (with the 1.4x as well). I try to always shoot tethered, so I usually use the CamRanger with an iPad Pro to see what I’m doing and to style the scene. I’ve got a couple Profoto lights that I keep in the bag in case they’re needed. My tripods are Really Right Stuff with Arca Swiss heads. I used to carry WAY more equipment – multitudes of lights, flags, stands, gels, everything – up to six or seven pieces of checked luggage. Over time, I’ve really slimmed it down because of my hectic travel schedule: schlepping that much stuff just sucks, I don’t care who you are. I’ve also been lucky in that I’ve been able to photograph some incredible buildings with nearly perfect lighting (thank you, clients!) which makes shooting and lighting things a bit easier. The more I do this, the more I’ve come to believe that a simple approach that doesn’t get in the way of your creative vision is what’s best. I want the least amount of crap between me and the camera – it happens pretty regularly that there is some amazing scene unfolding due to incredible light that we just simply couldn’t foresee on the scout, and using the DSLRs and mobile tethering with the iPad allows me to move quickly between scenes to photograph what I need. I could never be that quick with a medium format/tech camera system and a full tethering system. I try to go slow and be deliberate whenever possible, but sometimes, get outta the way, there’s a photo to be made, and we only have two minutes to do it!
PK: Can you tell us how the ‘Classified’ project came about and what was different in your approach photographing NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility?
MK: In August of ’18 I was invited by NASA to come photograph their Michaud Assembly Facility – a really interesting opportunity. They pretty much told me I could do whatever I wanted, but I really wanted to make something different than normal photographs and with my limited amount of time on location, that was quite tough to do. We didn’t have much control over lighting, time of day, etc, so what we had in front of us was all we could get. Throughout the shoot, we were told about foreign countries who had copied or stolen from NASA in the past, and these stories absolutely captivated me for days after the shoot (want to go down a Wikipedia rabbit hole? Check out the Soviet space shuttle Buran) While there wasn’t much top-secret tech on display, I wanted to make the series more intriguing and mysterious, rather than just being a series of pictures of some scaffolding and metal space things. Don’t get me wrong, it’s absolutely incredible, but there have been thousands upon thousands of photographs of this stuff made before. How do you do something different? The idea for Classified actually came about in the edit. While I was shooting, I was just looking for interesting, dynamic compositions using the architecture and infrastructure of NASA which is really interesting on its own – I wasn’t hellbent on taking photos of things I could censor. The idea came to me about two weeks after the shoot while I was ruminating on what to do with these shots, and I was instantly obsessed with the idea. The post production was maybe 2 hours of getting the perfect amount of pixel blur, along with some contrast and highlight adjustments. Super simple, but I think the concept is what is interesting about the series.
PK: In collaboration with Fstoppers you have developed 3 sets of architectural photography online courses – “Where Art Meets Architecture”. Can you tell us about them?
MK: Where Art Meets Architecture (WAMA) 1-3 are digital download training courses for people interested in all facets of architectural photography. They cover basically all segments of photographing buildings – from shooting real estate listings, to shooting multi-million dollar architectural homes and hotels. Fstoppers came to me back in 2013 to gauge my interest in producing the first tutorial and we filmed a small ‘tester’ to make sure I was decent enough on camera. I passed their test and offered to work with me on a full-length tutorial which was a big success. The funny thing is, looking back, it’s pretty interesting to see how much my style has changed. When we filmed WAMA 1, I still had not found my voice. I didn’t know what I wanted to shoot. Was it houses? Hotels? High Rises? Who knew!? I wanted to take pictures of everything. And it kind of shows. Which is a blessing and a curse, because people get to see me at this vulnerable, crazy part of my career where I know what I want to do but not how I want to do it, trying everything to see what sticks. The techniques that I was using were pretty cutting edge at the time – light painting, compositing, really pushing what had been done in the genre digitally. Over the next few years, I really began to find what I wanted to shoot. I sort of hit my stride in terms of career and style, and some of the techniques that I used in WAMA 1 were no longer as efficient or didn’t suit the styles of architecture I discovered that I loved shooting. There’s still a time and a place for it – for sure – but I’ve found that rather than pursuing the commercial, polished look of advertising and hotel photography, I’ve really gravitated towards more of a raw style that depends more on composition and natural lighting. So when we filmed the second and third installments of WAMA, you can absolutely see me working towards this a little bit more. So while I definitely think I don’t shoot like I used to in that original WAMA series, it’s still interesting – because you can really see me trying to find where I fit in and how I wanted to shoot. And it takes any photographer years to find that; so it’s pretty cool that people are able to get a look at me refining those early techniques and figuring out what I want to do with them.
Mike Kelley Photography: https://www.mpkelley.com
‘Where Art Meets Architecture’ courses: https://fstoppers.com/product/mike-kelleys-where-art-meets-architecture-3