RICHARD KELLY - A MAGAZINE STORY ASSIGNMENT BY KELLY CAHILL
[In the Fall Semester of 2007, I taught an engaged group of students in the B&W Film class, one student, a Carnegie Mellon University creative writing major, in particular, was extraordinary with her photography and she asked if she could write a profile about me for her magazine writing assignment. Kelly Anne Cahill I recently discovered her essay in a pile of studio papers and I was preparing to launch the Richard Kelly Experience - I think she captured the essence of what I am doing with these workshops. Posted here with permission in its entirety.]
Richard Kelly thinks he must have been annoying as a child, the kind of little boy who tugged at the shirts of adults and obsessively, tirelessly asked “how” and “why.” He’s always been very curious about the way things work - people, machines. So I imagine learning to read was a very liberating time for Richard. The library must’ve been a sort of rabbit hole that he fell into, dizzied by the shelves and shelves dense with people, places, machines he’d never heard of; the answers to all his hows and whys. It was while Richard was systematically working his way through the books in the library that he first learned about photography.
He was maybe 10 or 11 at the time, and up until then he’d been most interested in music and art. But photography had a scientific component that appealed to Richard. He loved how complicated the cameras were, with their numbers and buttons and shutters. The precise formula of light, chemicals, and mechanical manipulation that produces a finished photographic print represented an intersection of art and science that was immediately fascinating.
Richard got his first camera in 7th grade. He bought it himself with savings from his paper route. The Minolta SRT202 cost $125, which was a good bit of money in 1978. He built a darkroom with the help of his fattier. For money to feed his photography habit, Richard took simple portraits for a local newspaper in his hometown of Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania for $25 a pop. When he was old enough, he got a job at the camera shop in Beaver Falls that had sold him his first camera and would sell him several more.
As a professional photographer, Richard now has lots of different cameras - digital, film, Polaroid; big, small, and in-between. Except for that first Minolta SRT202, which he traded in for another model, he still has every camera he’s ever owned. They all work.
In my Black & White I photography class at Pittsburgh Filmmakers, our first assignment was to make five prints demonstrating line, texture, light as the subject, depth of field, and use of the edge of the frame - fairly basic and broad concepts that are included in any introductory photography class.
It was the tail end of summer when I was shooting the film for that first assignment. The afternoon light was the brand of golden that signifies a dying season - everything seemed worth photographing. One weekend while walking around my neighborhood with a camera pressed to my face, I stumbled upon a street fair where local artists were selling their work. They were all doing such interesting projects. I photographed a man on his hands and knees doing a huge chalk drawing in the middle of the road and a woman decoupaging photographs onto wooden planks. I couldn’t wait to develop the film.
At our last class before the first assignment was due, I picked eight of my finished prints out of the shallow tub of water in the darkroom. Back in the classroom, I looked at each wet print carefully and started to panic. I had taken a lot of pretty pictures of art and
artists, but not a lot of pictures that would work for my assignment One of the pictures, an 8” by 10” photograph of several pinwheels spinning on long plastic stalks, seemed like it might work as a demonstration of line.
Ever the nervous student, I decided to bring the photo to my professor. I wanted to do well in the class and I already felt like I had fallen behind my classmates, most of whom had taken photography classes before.
“Hi, Richard. Do you think this picture would work for the line part of our assignment? I thought that it might because these stalks are all right next to each other ... but I don’t really know. I don’t really have anything else for line.”
‘That’s a cool picture. I like that. Yeah, sure that works - if you think it works, then it works,” Richard said, sizing up the picture. He looked at me, smiling, “Don’t worry so much. This class is supposed to be fun. If you’re not having fun, you shouldn’t be here.”
After doing advanced studies in photography in high school, Richard was accepted into the Rochester Institute of Technology, a premier university for art and design. He studied photography at RIT for two quarters, but his formal education ended abruptly when there wasn’t enough money for him to return for the third quarter. So Richard began to cobble together his own real-world education, apprenticeship after apprenticeship. He moved to Fort Lauderdale, where a photographer named David Vance was looking for someone to do black and white photo printing for him. “David Vance, in the early ‘80’s, he was the most recognized glamour and fashion photographer that there was,” Richard says.
But Vance was just the first in a string of extremely talented and well-known photographers who mentored Richard. There was also Steve White, who split his time between Miami and Paris, and Art Kane, who photographed the likes of Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, and Louis Armstrong.
When Richard speaks about the many well-known photographers he worked for, it is decidedly unlike the networker’s mantra of “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” Richard’s version would be something more along the lines of “It’s not who you know, it’s who believes in you.” “All along my life there’s been people who believed in me, who helped me believe in myself,” he explains. “I was fortunate along the way to have people who taught me what I needed to know and then let me go on to somebody else who taught me something different.”
Art Kane, for example, was kind of a big shot. His work is in museums. Kids study him in school. David Vance helped Richard get into one of Kane’s exclusive conceptual portraiture workshops in Maine. On the first day of the workshop, a 20-year- old Richard stood among advanced amateurs and mid-career photographers while Kane criticized the students’ portfolios anonymously. “Art was ripping these photographers’ work apart, and I thought they were good!” Richard says. He nervously awaited his turn. “When he got to my portfolio, he didn’t say anything for the longest time, and then he proceeded to tell me all these things about myself that I hadn’t told anybody. I hadn’t realized photographs could communicate that viscerally.” A while after the workshop, Kane asked Richard to help him with some fashion shoots. Richard eagerly accepted, and ended up working with Kane for some time - a period which Richard refers to as his version of grad school. “He let me use the equipment in his studio, and he was always encouraging me to work on my portfolio. Art Kane taught me a lot about the emotional and conceptual impact a photo can have, and a lot about how to edit,” Richard says. “And when he liked my photographs, he would tell his clients to hire me.”
Richard mentions nothing about the glamour of working for Kane; doesn’t talk about the celebrities and the beautiful people Kane photographed. Instead, he speaks of Kane the way he speaks of all of his other mentors: with a sincere reverence and gratitude.
I am embarrassed to say that when I first started taking the Black & White I class with Richard, I thought he might be sort of a hack photographer.
Before we started using real black and white film during the class, Richard had us shoot a roll of “CN” film, a special type of black and white film that you can drop off at the comer drug store for processing instead of sending it out to a professional black and white photo lab. The project was supposed to be informal. Fun. “Just take pictures of whatever interests you, and we’ll look at them as a class next week,” Richard said.
My first time using my parents’ 1970s-era Canon was a bit short of successful, thanks to my unsteady hands. Almost all of my shots were blurry, and because I didn’t yet know about light meters or apertures, the majority of the prints were either washed- out or too dark.
In class, as I laid the photos on a table for the class to see, Richard said, “So, tell us about these.” I tried to crack a joke about how I clearly didn’t know how to use a manual camera, but Richard interrupted. “Well, don’t worry about that, you’ll leam. What’s more interesting are these people you chose to photograph - tell us about them.” There was a sort of cultural assumption on my part that a truly professional or successful artist would be something of an elitist - an art snob. Richard seemed so uncritical of my technical errors that I thought he must not be all that great of a photographer.
Of course, that incident occurred during the second week of class and he might have been cutting me a break. But just last week a tall red-headed University of Pittsburgh student turned in a batch of similarly blurry prints for our critique. Even though we are three-quarters of the way through the semester and the student still hasn’t mastered basic camerawork, Richard said to her in class, “Well, you clearly have the subject matter. Now let’s try to refine what you’re doing so that you’re happy with your prints.” He encouraged her instead of embarrassing her. He turned the blurry photographs into an opportunity to philosophize about the nature of portraiture: “With these pictures, I kind of feel like they’re asking, ‘How little can I say and still get the point across? How much would be too much?”’
That’s classic Richard Kelly. He doesn’t overlook technical errors in photographs because he doesn’t notice them or care about them - he overlooks technical errors because he cares more about what the student wanted a print to look like than the way the print actually came out. Whenever a student indicates that they’re unhappy with their final product, Richard gives gentle suggestions about how to get the desired results:
Meter your light differently; Use a longer exposure.
Richard did his first professional magazine shoot at age 21, an age when most aspiring photographers are only working as assistants. You can find his work in any number of national and local magazines. He makes a living taking pictures that fulfill him personally and professionally - a rare feat in any profession. Richard is not a hack photographer, he is a rare gem: an extremely talented artist who wants to draw people into the field of photography instead of excluding them from it.
In our last class before our final critique, Richard said, “My goal in this class was mainly to get you to take the next level course - Black & White II.” He just wants people to be as passionate about photography as he is.
Richard spent most of the early ‘80’s living in Florida, but, like most artists, dreamed of the busy streets and abundant opportunities of New York City. In 1986, he finally had enough work in the city to move there. But three years later, after spending time touring with B.B. King in Mississippi, Richard started to think differently about living in New York. “B.B. King said to me something to the effect of, ‘Don’t let the place define the man, let the man define the place,”’ Richard says. And that made all the difference.
After returning home from the tour, Richard decided to do some exploring. He didn’t want to be “another New York photographer.” He packed up and spent a summer in Montana with Kurt Markus, a photographer friend. “That summer I went out with crazy women and drank a lot,” Richard says, laughing. After his time in Montana, Richard bounced from New York to LA and eventually landed in Pittsburgh, where he’s lived and worked since 1992.
Of his time spent touring with B.B. King, Richard doesn’t say much, aside from the lesson on geography that B.B. taught him. He does little to indulge my interest in the talented and famous, and ultimately I’m glad - he seems above it. Richard’s primary interest is in portraiture. He wants to leam about people - beautiful or average, famous or anonymous. Everyone is someone to be studied, researched, photographed, learned from. Richard has a mental encyclopedia of quotes from people who have taught him one life lesson or another. To most of the world, B.B. King is one of the greatest American blues musicians ever to have lived, but to Richard, he is one teacher among many teachers - he’s a “cool guy” in a world chock full of many cool guys.
Still, Richard does have a framed photograph of himself with B.B. King hanging in his Pittsburgh studio. Other than the Chuck Taylors and jean shorts he is wearing in the picture, Richard looks virtually the same as he did in 1989: boyish hair cut and bright eyes, with a camera slung over his shoulder.
Richard Kelly is a professional photographer who wishes he was a writer. He thinks writing is “the highest form of art.” Especially after taking Richard’s class at Filmmakers and speaking with him about his craft, I feel photography and writing are Two different ways of getting at the same goal. They both aim to capture the essence of something or someone, and to accurately and artfully convey that essence to others.
When Richard photographs people, he tries to reveal something about them. “I try to go beyond what the person looks like, beyond the facade of a person, and into a little bit more about them,” he says. Writing is much the same: It requires unearthing more than the basic facts, getting to what is at the very core of a thing through careful dissection.
On a more personal level, I think I want to write for the same reason that Richard wants to take pictures. “Photography is just an excuse to learn something new,” he says. Cameras and notebooks both give people a license to ask questions. Photographers and writers get to explore the world and then have the weighty task of interpreting it, making sense of it. Both art forms are for the insatiably curious; for those of us who may have been somewhat annoying children, constantly asking “how” and “why.”
I am terribly fond of writing, myself, but I wonder if a well-done portrait of Richard would’ve been just as effective as this piece I’ve written about him.
"I WONDER IF A WELL-DONE PORTRAIT OF RICHARD WOULD’VE BEEN JUST AS EFFECTIVE AS THIS PIECE I’VE WRITTEN ABOUT HIM."
Kelly Cahill, in 2007 she was Creative Writing Major and Photography Student
- she also modeled for a photo shoot I was doing in the studio