Adventures in La-LA land - an exclusive peek at Dubliner Tony Kelly's book of nudes
He's a former INM photographer who cut his teeth on LIFE Magazine, and is now taking his adopted home of LA by storm. Dubliner Tony Kelly tells Liadan Hynes how beauty, humour and the desire to entertain are central to his work, while LIFE readers also get an exclusive peek at his incredibly stylised, irreverent photographs from his book of nudes
'LA is my studio. I can breathe there; I'm inspired there." It's seven years since Irish photographer Tony Kelly moved to America, on the night that Michael Jackson died. Upon landing, he instantly hated the place, he recalls, but waking up the next morning was a revelation. "I always remember that. I just saw the graphics. It was like two pieces of a jigsaw clicking. I like the eccentricity of the place, how bonkers they all are. But that's not really the thing. It's more that when I walk out on to the street, I feel like I'm walking into a custom-designed studio."
Dubliner Tony's images are peppered with palm trees, outdoor swimming pools, red carpets, paparazzi, lush private gardens, suggestions of plastic surgery, and, of course sun-drenched, physically perfect men and women. LA has proved to be the perfect backdrop for his work.
Tony's career began as a news photographer for Independent News and Media, with a stint covering war zones. Moving into fashion, his work for LIFE magazine included Lorraine Keane playing a celebrity chased by the paparazzi; Glenda Gilson as a party girl, lolling in the bath; model Sophie Anderton dangling a raw steak in the jaws of a pair of rottweilers; Rosanna and Wes revealing their relationship at a fantasy nightclub.
His career so far has seen him work with the world's most prestigious magazines: Vogue, Vanity Fair, GQ, Cosmopolitan, and with stars such as Demi Lovato, Will Ferrell, Simon Pegg, Adam Levine, Russell Brand, Matt LeBlanc, Bruno Mars, Justin Bieber, Kate Upton, and Daisy Lowe. Tony's photos are never just a model standing against a wall in a nice outfit. Instead, his fine-art work and editorial and advertising photography resembles cinematic stills; always telling a narrative; everything rendered in larger-than-life style; a voyeuristic feast for the eyes.
Having moved from Barcelona, where he lived for a number of years, to LA, he has developed a symbiotic relationship with his adopted city, the place where seemingly anything goes. "You know when you meet somebody, a partner, and it just works? I can go out to any street corner and feel constantly inspired by what I see over there. I grew up in suburban Dublin. In the middle of winter, it's a very grey place. I think I always fantasised about a world where there were blue skies and palm trees. I always thought there was something else out there."
He uses the term hyperrealism to describe his work, but Tony's pictures aren't merely a reflection of what he sees around him, but a re-imagining, reflecting his unique take on the world. "It's an aspirational thing," he says. "I give people an escape. We take reality, we gloss it up, and it becomes an escape for people."
He identifies the ingredients that make up a Tony Kelly image: "Beauty. Humour, always humour. That, for me, is one of the most important things; that's what separates my work. There's that aspirational feel; there are always beautiful women or men. There's an irreverent feel to it; I don't follow the rules. It's me. It really represents my personality and my view of things.
"We call it art, but within art, there are many arts. The art of entertaining, the art of comedy, the art of the visual, and the art of graphic. And they form these ingredients that together, when they're all present, and in the right place, cooked to the right temperature, it makes sense," Tony explains. "But as soon as you arrive to a place where you're like, 'OK, I've kind of earned my stripes at this level', you have to push the bar. You can never sit back on your laurels. I feel today I know what ingredients are necessary.
"It's always been about entertainment. From day one, it's been about entertaining the viewer. If someone says to me, 'That's a lovely picture', I feel horrendous," Tony reflects. "Like I've failed. But if someone laughs at the picture, I've really succeeded. I want a reaction. I suppose today I've matured, but there's still that same humour in it. It's just more layered today."
Almost a decade ago, a personal crisis forced a dark night of the soul that completely overhauled Tony's approach to his work. "Ten years ago, I would have looked at other people's work, but I think I have arrived to a point where I am confident in myself. I went through a big change in life. I had a tough year, for personal circumstances, and it resulted in a lot of growth. I think that pushed me into a place where I had to get more connected to myself. It was a journey; I did all sorts of stuff. And as a result of that, my work definitely benefited, because I became more confident in myself. And I found myself thinking: 'I'm not going to bother looking at other people's work'. The ideas started to come into my own head. And that only came after going through a rough year."
After this self-exploration, he reevaluated his work, reached something of a personal crossroads, and, for the first time, actually believed in what he was doing. "I had this moment," he says, "where I thought, 'You know what? This is actually quite good, what I do. I'm actually on to something here'. Because I think prior to that, there were a lot of people around me that believed in it, but maybe I didn't."
At a time where photography risks becoming a disposable art, where everyone is a photographer and an Instagram filter covers a multitude of sins, this personal epiphany allowed Tony to develop a style that is instantly recognisable. Of late, he's moved into directing videos, creating campaigns for Mac cosmetics and American Apparel. It's also led the development of a fine-art collection, which is garnering serious attention in the art world. So far, the Getty family have purchased two of his pieces, and last year alone, prices increased by 70pc, such is the demand.
"I've always been quite rebellious. I remember being in school in Dublin and looking at the teachers, thinking, 'This is all complete bollocks; what is the point in even learning this stuff?' So, I've always done things my own way, I suppose," Tony explains. "That's transparent in my pictures. My objective is always to capture people's attention for a second. And to entertain them when I do that. Because I look at stuff today, and there's just the same old shit you see in all the magazines. What does it say to us? I grew up working in newspapers; a news story would last three days. It lasts four seconds now. Everything's so disposable, and I think that has highlighted how mundane and boring a lot of the fashion photography is, because people are afraid. So my first objective is to be different."
So thoroughly has Tony earned his stripes that legendary German publisher teNeues came to him asking that he do a book, his second since moving to LA. Taken! Entertaining Nudes is a mixture of archive material and new work photographed specifically for the book.
"I wanted to shoot portraits of Beverly Hills, some shot from a helicopter. It was a peep at the decadent lifestyle of the rich and famous, hidden behind the manicured walled gardens of Beverly Hills. But created and orchestrated by me. It was kind of a link back to my paparazzi days," says Tony. He hired a helicopter and set up scenes below, spending days at a time shooting from the air. The images feature naked women gardening, swimming in pools, taking selfies, sunbathing, leaning out of news vans.
"There's one picture in the book where there's a guy walking round in a blazer; beside him are two ladies swimming up and down naked in a pool. The reality of Beverly Hills is that there aren't really guys going round in blazers and moccasin shoes while two chicks swim in the pool. But I like to stick to the old-school Beverly Hills, what it was. And I create that fantasy in my head, that vision.
"LA is my office, it's my studio. So when I'm there, I'm generally on work mode. And I'm on creative mode," says Tony, whose downtime includes trips home for golfing, or skiing in Val d'Isere. "And the ideas that come into my head just seem to make sense in LA. They're ideas that I can execute in LA. If you want a helicopter to land on the roof of a building with a donkey tied to it, you can do it. No problem. So I really enjoy taking advantage of that facility that's there on my doorstep. On a personal note, of course I enjoy waking up in the sunshine. It's a good city to live in. The lifestyle is good. Of course I miss the European aesthetic and culture, but I split my time between LA and Europe. And the art scene in LA is enjoying a renaissance at the moment. There's a lot of people in the art world moving to LA."
He reflects that LA isn't just a city where people go to do yoga and drink green juices. "That all exists, but the people that are successful in LA work their asses off. You get out of it what you put in. As Sinatra says, 'LA is my lady'."
With his statuesque nudes, who sport glossy red lips and shiny scarlet talons, Kelly's work has been compared to Helmut Newton. Given the overtly sexual tone of his pictures, and the fact that the women are often naked, his work could be open to being deemed misogynistic.
Like Newton's work though, women in Tony Kelly's images are powerful, dominant, in charge. Often, the male presence is reduced to a mere miniature plastic action figure.
"It's so important to make it fun. Why not? My objective is that when people see a Tony Kelly picture, they see the joy in it, or the humour, or the irony," he says of what he deems the essential element of his art. "If you look at any relationship between two people, it goes sour because they don't have fun. I've spoken to psychologists about this. That's the basic ingredient in life. I want people to enjoy my pictures. Is the process simple to create that? No, it's very, very complex, the execution."
© 'Taken! Entertaining Nudes' by Tony Kelly, published by teNeues, €49.90, see teneues.com
Fine-art print sales at tonykelly.com
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