I met Brian Kelley, or BK as he’s often called, six years ago at the Zoo York office. He was an intern at the time, carrying out whatever menial tasks the marketing department could think of to keep him busy. Within 5 minutes of meeting BK it was clear he had an overwhelming love of skateboarding, photography and life in general. Even though he was painting the walls at the office, he was stoked just to be involved with a skateboard company.
Fast-forward to today. I called BK to do this interview as he was boarding a flight from LA back to New York. He had just completed another shoot and his duties for the week as the staff photography for Huf. From painting walls as an intern to handling photo duties for a skateboard legend and his namesake brand? I couldn’t help but ask him: “BK, how the hell did you get here?” His response is below.
When we first met, you were interning at Zoo York, painting walls, folding product, getting coffee, stuff like that. Six years later, you’re traveling all over the world shooting photos for Huf. If that’s not a skateboard success story I don’t know what is.
Haha, thank you, Ben.
Where have you gotten to travel to because of skateboarding?
Skateboarding has definitely given me the opportunity to travel a lot. Whether it was for work or just pleasure. The first time I really ever left the country was back in 2011. I went on a trip with a bunch of friends to South East Asia for a Visual Traveling trip organized by Patrick Walner. We traveled through Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar. That trip for sure got me inspired to see as much of the world as I could. Such an eye opener to explore. Since then, I’ve been lucky enough to have traveled to Turkey, Kazakhstan, Australia, Japan, South Korea, Guam, the list goes on and hopefully won’t ever stop!
Did you grow up reading skate magazines like Skateboarder, Thrasher and Transworld?
I think Thrasher is all I was allowed to get. My mom said I could only pick one magazine to subscribe to. As for the other mags, I would just check them out when I was at the grocery store in my town. I barely read them though. I was all about just looking at the pictures.
And now your pictures have been published in all three?
I believe so.
So you’re traveling extensively, shooting some of your favorite skaters and being published in the magazines you grew up reading. Amazing. Go back and tell us how you got here.
I’m from upstate New York, a small village called Horseheads. One of my friends growing up had gotten a skateboard while visiting North Carolina. My dad made a deal with me that if I made honors in school he would buy me one. I think I was 13 at the time, so 2001. Growing up though in such a small town, I was so disconnected from everything about the industry. I didn’t even know anyone who was flow till I moved to the city in 2006. That’s when I met Kevin Tierney, Dave Willis, Yaje Popson and a grip of others and started shooting skating
It was a slow process at first. I had no idea how anything worked. Luckily though, I was going to school at SVA at the time and had access to an infinite amount of equipment. Plus, friend and fellow photographer Zach Malfa-Kowalski was at my school. He had already been shooting a bunch and I annoyed him almost everyday with questions on how things worked. I didn’t even have my own camera or flashes. I think I had a Jansport backpack that I just stuffed everything I rented into and then skated all day and all night.
Did you move to New York City because of skateboarding?
No, I moved here to study photography at the School of Visual Arts. The city wasn’t even my first choice either. I really wanted to go to Rochester Institute of Technology. They had an amazing program and my brother had gone there. But I didn’t do so well on the academic side of things, so that was a no go. I guess it worked out though.
How did you get into photography originally?
When I was in my freshman year of high school, I accidentally signed up for what I thought was going to be a drawing and painting class. Ended up being a photo class. We worked with 35mm cameras and mostly shot black and white. The classroom even had a darkroom in it, so I learned how to print photos, too! All of it was so new, and my teacher was amazing. I think that’s what really got me into photography. The class had structure, but no real guidelines. She would let you do whatever, which is what I think you need when you’re first getting into something. That’s why skateboarding works so perfectly for most kids, there’s no real rules. My dad ended up buying me my first camera in 2001 for a Christmas present. It was a Fuji Finepix .
When you were first starting to shoot photos in New York, how did you meet people to shoot with?
I wasn’t that shy when it came to skating in the city and meeting people. I wasn’t really aware of any sort of status, or cool guy factor, just because of growing up in such a small town. I eventually started skating the old LES skate park and just asking kids that I’d skate with if they wanted to shoot. I’m sure they thought I was weird, especially when we would actually go try and shoot a photo and I had no idea what I was doing. My first year in the city was such a learning experience: life, skating, photography, every aspect. I first started going out with a couple homies from a crew called Battery Power. I actually shot my freshman year project with them. It was a whole series of portraits of the crew, which I love still looking back at 9 years later. Seeing how much everyone has changed.
What else were you doing with the photos you shot?
When I was in my freshman year, I reached out to Tobin Yelland. He was still living in Brooklyn at the time and I ended up interning for him, which was a trip having grown up admiring all his work. He passed on a lot of contacts to magazines and companies to try and reach out too. For the first year though, I got all no’s from the mags.
Your first published photo was Nick Dompierre back noseblunting the rail at the Banks in a Thunder ad. Did you get paid for that?
I think I ended up getting $500 for it, which is crazy. I don’t remember the last time I got paid for a skate photo in a mag.
A few years back your camera bag got stolen with all your equipment in it.
Ah jeez. That was shit man! I was an idiot and left it unattended for literally 2 minutes at McCarren skate park when it first opened up. Just long enough for some bmx kid to swoop it. Worst part is, through a long line of mutual friends, I found out who took it. I tried to talk through friends and tell him I’d give him money for the shit back. He said nah, so I called the cops, told them the whole story and that I had evidence that it was him. The cop cut me off and told me “this is King’s County, we don’t do that kind of stuff”. Then hung up. I felt like giving up photography, just because of how much it had cost to buy all my gear. But my boss at the time made a deal with me: if I put in some crazy overtime, he’d give me his. So I did, and eventually built my gear back up.
Where did your photography go from there?
After that happened, I was getting ready to graduate from SVA and needed to figure out what to do for a living. At Zoo York, a good friend hooked me up with a photographer who specialized in still life photography. I wasn’t into it at first, but the more and more he taught me, the more I took a liking to it. Since then, I’ve been able to blend both worlds of still life and action.
How did you end up at Huf?
In 2010, I randomly emailed Keith (Hufnagel). Told him I really wanted to shoot a look book for him. He trusted me, sent a bunch of clothing over and I ended up shooting my first look book ever. I was so nervous. That opportunity he gave me back then has had such an impact on my life. I’m still with Huf today, and still shooting look books, going on trips, special projects, and product photography sometimes. It’s been crazy honestly.
Crazy what one opportunity can turn into. What do your duties entail at Huf now?
I handle a majority of the photography, mostly lifestyle and skate, collaborating on ideas with Scott Tepper, who is the creative director over there. Photographing the look books and catalogs that you see on the site and at the tradeshows.
You also started a zine, Steady Mag with two of your friends. There’s no advertising in it, you guys pay out of your own pocket to create it?
For Steady, it’s me, Justin Hogan and Dan Zvereff. We fully produce the mag ourselves. If someone else were paying for it, they’d have a say in the content. So we just keep it to ourselves, concept ideas together, themes we think we’d all be into shooting.
Although I know you really appreciate printed photography, you seem to have also embraced Instagram and blogging. How has the importance of online content and social media changed the roll of the skate photographer?
Not sure about that one completely. One thing I’ve noticed is that there’s almost more of an impact posting a photo on Tumblr or Instagram than trying to get something ran in a mag.
When you say impact, are you saying more people will see it?
Yeah, for sure. The Internet is wild. Watching what people are into is crazy. I feel like there is a formula to how the Internet works and if you can figure it out, you’ll be much more successful in whatever you do.
Last thing, for a person reading this that would like to get into skate photography, what advice would you give?
Shit, first, there’s no right way to go about it. I actually stopped shooting skate photos for a min and just focused on shooting still life, and then ended up getting the job I have now in skateboarding. I believe that you should not just do one thing. Don’t just shoot skate photos. Experiment with all areas of photography. Work hard, do a lot of stuff for free, ask a lot of questions, shoot a lot! Things will work out!