Words By Eric Greene, Photography By Brian Kelley
Brian Kelley is a Brooklyn-based commercial photographer, skateboarder, and creative who has his grubby paws on a bunch of different projects you’ve likely never heard of but would be privileged to know about. BK is also a humble and friendly young man who ends every text message he sends with a smiley face emoji. The person who said, “That guy BK is an asshole,” has never existed in this world.
BK is a staff lensman at HUF Worldwide by day and eBay addict collector-of-things by night. You can find him in his studio that he shares with several other near-famous artists in Bed-Stuy, at the best food spots and happy hours in Brooklyn that you didn’t know about, or staring at still life product images in store windows on Fifth Avenue.
EG: Tell the people who you are.
BK: My name is Brian Kelley and I’m a Brooklyn-based photographer. I’m from a small town in upstate New York and have been living in New York City since 2006.
What happened in 2006 that brought you to New York City?
I came here to study photography at SVA (School of Visual Arts).
Now being a grown man in the working life hustle, do you feel like your SVA education is a valuable asset?
That’s tough to answer. Yeah, I do, but I know that you don’t need to go to school to become a photographer. I feel like my education brought me to the city, where I knew that if I failed in my studies, I’d have to move back to my small town home. That made me work hard, I suppose, because school was my ticket out of town. But I don’t think school is the reason I am where I am with photography.
So you were more schooled in life skills and trained in responsibility at SVA, rather than learning how to take a photograph properly?
Yeah. That’s pretty accurate. I wasn’t exposed to anything relevant in our culture before I moved here. I didn’t really know about photography or freelancing or how the skateboard industry worked.
How did you first get into photography?
I accidently took a photography class in high school that was titled “Multi-media Studies.” I showed up with my sketchbook and pencil crayons and the teacher said she was going to teach us how to use a camera. We ended up doing a bunch of darkroom developing and I just liked it. It was cool.
How did you end up working at HUF?
I started skateboarding when I was 13 and that was just what I did. I also did a lot of mainstream sports growing up because my parents wanted me to do sports and music, but I have zero musical talent. I was working at 12ozProfit in SoHo when I reached out to Keith Hufnagel directly and asked about shooting a look book for them because I was a skateboarder and follower of the brand. It worked out and I kept in touch and shot look books for them for the next two years. That was right when they first launched their footwear collection and I ended up shooting all the shoe product. I photographed product for two years out of my apartment, but now I have a studio.
Do you now know the HUF team guys well after traveling with them often?
Yeah. I knew three or four of the guys before they joined HUF, so it was awesome when they got on the team.
You’re known to have too many side projects on the go. Do you get bored easily?
It’s not that I get bored. Not to sound cocky in any way, but I have a lot of ambition for what I want to create with photography. I don’t want to just shoot product, so I try to do a lot of different creative things, whether it’s making zines with friends or working on new things in the studio. And lately I’m spending more and more time working on The NYCTA Project.
Explain The NYCTA Project.
I started photographing MetroCards that I found on the ground for studio practice. That was three-and-a-half years ago and it’s since developed into a large collection of items from New York City’s public transportation history.
You now have hundreds of items from the transit network that you’ve found or bought on eBay and they’re all photographed and archived.
Yeah. I eventually want to turn it into a book or have a show with all of it displayed. I’m obsessed.
What’s your project Steady magazine all about?
I do that with Dan Zvereff and Justin Hogan. We get together and figure out projects to do without any real time constraint. Then we produce this zine on our own without any advertisers or external expectations.
What photography projects have you completed that you’re most proud of?
Probably the stuff I’ve done on my own and had full creative control over. I’ve also worked on projects with some agencies in New York, like Colossal and Doubleday & Cartwright that I’m proud of. Those are fun assignments.
Have you paid your dues taking shitty photography jobs while you were coming up?
Yeah. I’ve definitely done jobs that sucked, but that’s how you improve. Shitty jobs are a learning experience that will make you a better photographer in the long run. It teaches you what to avoid and how to prioritize.
New York City is known to most of the world as a place for corporate opportunities in finance, fashion, and big business. You’re part of the independent art scene and young broke freelancers. How hard is it to make it here?
The creative scene is super competitive here and it’s narrowing because of the cost of living. Photography is different these days with social media and how everyone is a photographer. Nine years ago when I moved here, I had like a hundred bucks to my name to live on each week, but I figured it out. I know that if I’m struggling now with a full time job, there’s a problem. As you grow, new responsibilities come your way, but if you’ve lived off a hundred bucks, you know how to make it happen.
Skateboarding also teaches you how to live on a budget when you’re young.
Exactly. You skate all day and then eat dollar-slice pizza for dinner and get free water at Starbucks. Once you have those roots, you know how to get by and move forward.
So you feel like it’s possible to live in New York and make it on your own as a photographer?
Yeah, I do. Over the last five years with everything going online, there’s so much content out there that it’s hard to set yourself apart and become successful. Everything you do is available to the public and people see it and think they can do it too. And they can. A lot of people don’t have the same doubts that they used to.
Is it true that you shoot a roll of film every day?
I try to. It’s hard. Especially the days when I’m locked in the studio all day. I do it in order to get out and walk around the neighborhoods. I don’t do it to get the best photo out of every roll. I’ve been focusing more on just documenting New York, like photographing street corners, buildings, or people… Anything that represents time and can be a visual archive. If I see a construction site in Brooklyn, I’ll take a photo of it because I know I can come back in a year and it’ll be a new condo building or something.
So you’re not trying to take photos that will be great or relevant as soon as they’re developed, but be impactful in the future?
Yeah. New York is so romanticized and people love to talk about how great it once was, so if I pay attention to how it is now through photography, it might mean something down the road.
Do you have a cheap place to get all that film developed every day?
I go to The Color House on Lafayette. I’m not taking those photos on an amazing camera either. I use my little Ricoh GR1 point-and-shoot. I’m just trying to gather physical evidence of the things that currently exist in New York City.
What’s your favorite kind of photography?
That’s tough to answer. I like a lot of still life photography because I’m a bit of a nerd. I’ll walk by a window on Fifth Avenue and stare at it for a long time, looking at a necklace or a watch or whatever. I geek out on that stuff. I also love looking at sports photography and trying to figure out what lens was used and how the photographer got access to shoot it or whatever.
What do you feel like you’re working towards?
I want to do more of my own projects and build my own career path. I’d like what I’m doing to grow organically and don’t want be in a hurry that would compromise the quality of my work.