Monday 16 September 2019

Photographer Tony Kelly: Blow up

Photographer Tony Kelly always had a taste for extravagance, although it didn't always go down as well in the Indo Group as it now does for magazines such as 'GQ' and 'Vanity Fair'. As Liadan Hynes, who worked with Kelly on his infamous LIFE shoots, where he developed his shocking, entertaining vision, introduces this extraordinary collection of his work, she recalls the unique challenges of working with the Fellini of Irish photography

Alexandra Richards, 'This was a shoot for French 'Playboy', which we shot recently in the south of Spain. Alex is very unassuming and down to earth. She asked me if she needed to pay for her dinner, which is unheard of for a model'
Alexandra Richards, 'This was a shoot for French 'Playboy', which we shot recently in the south of Spain. Alex is very unassuming and down to earth. She asked me if she needed to pay for her dinner, which is unheard of for a model'
Hollywood, 'I love LA. It's really food for my brain. Everybody's on their own trip, searching for something'

'I do like to shock people. I hate when people say to me, 'it's a nice picture'. For me, that's a failure. I like to get a reaction. And I do like people to have a giggle as well. It's pop art, essentially, isn't it? It's not to be taken too seriously."

Nice isn't the word that is likely to spring to mind looking at the work of photographer Tony Kelly. Keith Richards's daughter Alexandra cavorting naked on her hands and knees at the foot of a JCB; actor Simon Pegg screaming down the phone in a bath full of semi-naked models; European playboy Lapo Elkann cavorting with some underwear-clad lovelies in a hotel room; Penelope Cruz's actress sister, Monica, sitting on the toilet; a reclining model arches her back while a plastic GI Joe aims his machine gun up her crotch. Shocking? Yes. Sexy? Always. Nice? Tony needn't worry; it's not an adjective likely to be used to describe his work.

Welcome to the world of Irish photographer Tony Kelly: hyper-real, larger than life, always pushing limits to the extreme, and beyond.

"The intention is to get a reaction from people. And to take something that can be mundane, which is a model and a set of clothes, and turn it into something interesting," says Tony, a native Dubliner who is now based in Barcelona. "Everyone's beautiful in that game; they're all six foot tall and they all have great bodies and stuff, but it's editing them, and getting into someone who can bring something deeper to the table. It might be a Russian model who used to be a hooker, or it could be a princess. Somebody who has a tale to tell, and who can adopt the different characters that I can give them. That extra spark that transmits something, so that when you look at that picture and there's a girl with a sexy or a shocked look on her face, you feel it, and it transmits to the viewer."

As well as working on major international publications such as GQ, Cosmopolitan and Vanity Fair, Tony's fashion and portraiture work has been featured extensively in LIFE: past shoots have included Lorraine Keane acting out a paparazzi chase, Glenda Gilson frolicking in the bath, Rosanna Davison unveiling her relationship with Wes Quirke while their set party in the then newly opened Krystle nightclub.

A Tony Kelly shoot is always an event in itself. His mixture of boyish charm and boundless enthusiasm for the project at hand inevitably bowls his subjects over and convinces them to enact feats they'd probably never perform in front of another photographer. "Tony is a very welcoming person as soon as you meet him. The second I arrived in Malaga for my French Playboy shoot, we were out to dinner with the crew, talking as if we knew each other for ages," recalls Alexandra Richards.

It's not many photographers could convince Glenda Gilson to place a plastic bag over her head -- while smoking and wearing a platinum-blonde wig -- in order to achieve a particular gauzy effect they were after, then later, on the same shoot, to fully submerge herself in a bath and be photographed, entirely -- her head included -- underwater.

On one memorable occasion, when the subject we were photographing started urgently requesting cocaine from the crew at 11am, it was Tony who took control, sweet-talking her, and getting us through the day without the need to resort to Class As. She ended the day propositioning him with a date in a hotel room -- he turned her down in a typically gentlemanly fashion.

Other highlights of Kelly's shoots for LIFE include celebrity model Sophie Anderton rolling on a lawn in Howth while dangling a bloody, raw steak for a pair of Rottweilers who strain at the leash; actress Tatiana Ouliankina running down the Stillorgan dual carriageway, bottle of champagne in hand, her coat falling from her bare shoulders.

When we shot Lorraine Keane for the launch of Xpose, he persuaded her to act out a paparazzi chase scene. He chased her through the corridors of the dylan Hotel, then photographed her angrily kicking her car, which we had convinced a friendly clamper to clamp for the purposes of our picture.

And then, of course, there was Rosanna's iconic 2007 shoot in Krystle which launched the SoCoDu set. It featured the former Miss World and her cohorts running riot, and, egged on by Tony's indefatigable energy, they charged up and down Harcourt Street and recreated a nightclub scene on a rainy Saturday afternoon.

When working with Tony, pre-shoot requirements as to location and props are always precise, extensive and detailed. The day of the shoot can be a white-knuckle affair; I always expected Tony to turn and tell me, "Quick! I need an elephant, it's essential to the shot," to which I would calmly murmur, "A matter of minutes". Kelly shoots have required everything from crowds of extras, to an indoor swimming pool, wigs of exact specifications, Rottweilers and a jacuzzi. But it was always tempered by the knowledge that the results would be more than worth it: exciting and unique.

It's the same reason Lorraine Keane agreed to stick up two fingers at the camera as she pretended to drive by; she knew, with Tony, she was doing something utterly different from anything she'd done before, and that she'd look hotter than ever doing it.

The women he shoots, while undeniably sexual, are also feisty, iconic, bold, and in most cases, unquestionably in charge.

In person, Tony is a slightly broader, better-looking version of the footballer Peter Crouch; a tall, gangly, blonde motor-mouth. He's nothing like the stereotypical photographer; a shouter, as they're often called, urging their subject on with calls of "you're a tiger". His is a constantly buzzing, nervy ball of energy that fuels a work ethic which is always demanding, but ultimately unfailingly rewarding. There's a touch of wide-boy charm to him that gives the lie to any accusations of sleaze.

"First and foremost, Tony Kelly is all heart, and this is what people don't realise, because his images press so many buttons for them," says Sunday Independent fashion editor Constance Harris, in response to suggestions that Kelly's work features what might be construed as misogyny. "He's not afraid. And in Ireland, people are terribly afraid -- of revealing themselves, of offending other people. Anybody who knows Tony knows that he's got a heart, and a gentle soul, but that doesn't stop him being serious about what he explores.

"Regularly I fall around the place laughing at his images. One of my favourite ones recently is the one where he had the audacity to put a toy soldier between a model's crotch, and have the gun aimed up her vagina. Now you can take that as a very aggressive, anti-woman image, but I just think he's absolutely playing with boys and women. I don't see it as an issue about women as such; it's more about men and their own fear of intimacy and sexuality."

"I'm not a misogynist, absolutely not," Kelly says. "If you look at my work of late it's the complete opposite: I'm empowering women, and if you actually look and see, the women are the powerful ones. My representation of women is exactly how they are; they may not appear to be the powerful ones, but in the end they'll always have the upper hand, and if you look at my pictures they always, always do, especially of late."

Northsider Tony began his photographic career with Independent News and Media. A shot of Bono and Liam Gallagher earned him a full-time job, and he carved out a niche for himself in the paparazzi end of things. His first fashion shoot, for the Irish Independent, awakened a taste for the extravagance that would become the hallmark of his career.

"From that first day, when I was sent out on the fashion job, I had always had that interest. We ended up out on Sutton beach, in the rain, my editor ringing me, screaming at me," he remembers. "It was meant to be done at the back door of the Indo, which I didn't know. He called me and said, 'Where the fuck are you?' and I said, 'I'm out on a job, I'm doing a fashion shoot.' And he goes, 'Fashion should be done at the back door of the Indo.'"

Tony's extremism has been fuelled by his earlier work in war photography; at the age of 20, he self-funded a trip to Rwanda, encouraged by his close friend and fellow photographer Kenneth O'Halloran, a man he counts as one of his main influences. It was "a great eye opener," he says now.

"You're always aware that you're being manipulated, but at the same time you're going, 'That's real, there's something very raw within it,'" Harris says of Kelly's work. "That's the brilliant thing about him, that we never forget we're looking at a manipulated, suggestive image. A lot of photography is insidious and false, Tony Kelly is all about his truth. He never apologises for it, he never wants to hurt anybody, he's about examining something."

"Everything, everyday," he says of what inspires him. "I live in Barcelona, and it's a nice life, but it doesn't really inspire me that much. LA inspired me an awful lot. Everyday life, you know? I guess I'm a bit of a voyeur, and I watch people."

All heart, a man-child with a bold sense of humour, and a love of controversy, Tony Kelly is unquestionably one of our most fascinating talents. Feast your eyes on the work of Ireland's most outrageous photographer.

See www.tonykellyphotography.com

Sunday Independent

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