Conversations Photography The Bureau

The Bureau: James Harvey Kelly

By Drake's

Jul 13, 2022

The Bureau: James Harvey Kelly

Freelance photographer and art director, James Harvey-Kelly, talks us through his route into the worlds of fashion, portraiture, and landscape photography.

I work primarily as a photographer. I have covered a variety of subject matter, from landscapes to reportage and portraiture, but the focus of my work at present seems to be fashion. My path to where I am today hasn’t exactly been a straight line. I try and tell myself that this provides my work with some kind of valuable nuance and unique perspective which could never have been achieved with more appropriate strategic career planning, but the jury is still out.

I’ve been immersed in photography since I was a child - we had a darkroom at home, and stacks of coffee-table books by old heavy weights like Jeanloup Sieff and Henri Cartier-Bresson littered the place.

When I came to London for university, to study theology, I was shooting a lot for myself, but I also got a job with Jermyn Street shirt maker Emmett, and started getting really into tailoring. Once I finished university I spent a couple of years assisting fashion photographers and shooting projects, gradually gravitating more and more towards landscape-based art photography, which came through a mega fascination I had at the time with the great large-format colour photographers like Stephen Shore and Joel Sternfeld.

Tailoring, however, was still a big passion for me, so eventually I put down the camera and started my own tailoring business. Ultimately that lead to a number of more design-based opportunities internationally, and I ended up in Paris working as head designer and artistic director for a brand there, for a couple of years. It was a pretty invaluable experience as we were developing a lot of content and campaigns on a fairly big scale, so I was able to work with some amazing photographers from the other side and learn a lot. I then came back to London and worked as creative director for Emmett, the same shirt maker I had joined as a sales assistant almost a decade previous. I hadn’t picked up a camera in about 6 years. I’m not sure exactly what it was but something started drawing me back to photography. I think in a funny way maybe all those years on the other side of the industry gave me a vital insight into how the whole system worked, what useful and good photography looked like for the fashion industry, and so I was able to confidently organise myself into that framework in a way I hadn’t been able to before.

I don’t have a big set of criteria when it comes to subjects. When it’s right it’s just right. More often than not I’m drawn to things that make me smile or laugh. If I’m shooting people I always prefer it to be someone who has a good story. That just makes the day more interesting.

I like things to feel authentic. My first interest in photography has always been reportage, aside from that I think in many ways much of my style is the result of me being quite impatient. I’m not very good at sitting there and carefully tweaking exposures and compositions, I tend to just go with my first instinct and snap - perhaps that will change with age and I’ll become one of those old men who just takes thousands of meticulously lit photos of the same flower - who knows? For now though I definitely appreciate pictures where the photographer is not overly present. For me generally that means using natural light and not too much direction. I suppose also a side effect of shooting on film is that it mitigates that kind of relentless self-editing whilst shooting that can happen with digital. As you can’t see what you’ve got you’re forced to embrace a little looseness in the results and shift your focus away from the equipment and back towards your subject. 

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