The Alter-View team is growing with wickedly talented people and today we are psyched to welcome a new photographer to our team: James E Harvey-Kelly, a London-based photographer and fashion designer. Although photography has been his lifelong passion, James started out in fashion as a designer and creative director for menswear brands. In 2015 he decided to ditch his fashion career to follow his dreams of being a full-time photographer, and it worked.
How did you get from being an aspiring photographer to actually doing it full time, for a living?
My father was always very passionate about photography. In our family house where I grew up there was a dark room, and he had lots of amazing cameras and he taught me from a very young age. When I was 8 he bought me an Olympus OM10, which is a little manual 35mm SLR with no automatic functions and he told me that I had to work out how to use it before he let me use any of the big electronic cameras he had. Because of this from a young age I had a real fascination with photography. I was always really interested in fashion and I was always really interested in photography, those were always my two passions.
When I left school I went and studied theology at university but really I was into photography. So I was in London and I was working a lot with photographers as an assistant and stuff like that and doing almost no university work. At the same time I was quite social so I met a lot of people, who were already working in the industry. I had the opportunity to work in fashion photography with a couple of really amazing photographers, to assist them and learn from them. But it became clear to me that, although I was really passionate about fashion and about photography, those two passions weren’t really connected. The photography I liked was more reportage or art photography, and so I started to realise it wasn’t possible for me to express what I wanted to in terms of photography by doing fashion photography. When I left university I kept assisting and then I ended up working as a photographer and doing more landscapes and reportage, but not really doing proper jobs, just kind of messing around, building up my personal work, assisting people a bit. But I couldn’t work out how to make any money doing it. And I suppose also I didn’t have the confidence to know whether my work was good or not or how to use my work.
So I ended up having an opportunity to go into doing fashion as a tailor and designer. I worked as a menswear designer and then I ended up moving to Paris, to work for a menswear brand there. Then I came back to London as a creative director and worked for a while in that space and I didn’t touch a camera for about 7 years at all. But I was working a lot with photographers, I was the guy who was producing and art-directing the stories, or the campaigns, or the lookbooks. I was the one who was saying “ok this is what we want” and then I picked photographers and worked with them to create what we needed. And because I had a background in photography I understood the language of it and could have very useful conversations with photographers which was a really important part of my job. After a while I quit my job in fashion and I didn’t know what to do next so I took a year out. I started doing freelance work, producing and art-directing photo shoots for fashion brands and then I got the opportunity very randomly to shoot a couple of them, because photographers became unavailable. Even though I wasn't confident about doing this, I thought I should give it a try. I think because I’d spent the last 7 years before that, being the person who was in a position of authority working with photographers, suddenly I had the confidence and the insight to apply that same authority to my own work. Even though technically I was less good, because I hadn’t photographed in such a long time, I had a much more clear idea of what good photography was. Then I got more and more opportunities until I hit a point where I decided that's all I wanted to do. So since then I’ve been working as a photographer in the fashion industry, but also in art-photography, portraits and landscapes and that’s the journey so far.
Have you had any mentors along the way? Which photographers influenced you, and how did they influence your thinking, photographing, and career path?
I’ve had a lot of mentors, although I’m not sure they have always been aware of it. The first was my father, who was really passionate about photography. He has never worked as a photographer, but he’s always been someone that’s been really passionate about it and this shared passion has always been a big part of our relationship. He taught me the basics of how photography works and when I was young he introduced me to all these great classical black and white photographers, like Jeanloup Sieff, Norman Parkinson and the old Magnum photographers like Cartier-Bresson or Robert Capa. When I was a kid I really understood photography as being about that, those guys represented what photography was to me . So he gave me a great grounding in this classical framework of photography.
I’ve been really lucky over the past 10 years to have been able to work really closely with some amazing fashion photographers and I have learned something from every single one of them. They’ve had some wildly different perspectives and I think that’s one of the main things I learnt while working as an art-director and as a producer rather than photographer, that it's not that meaningful to categorise people as good or bad photographers, rather it's about having your own vision and sticking with it - it’s as simple as that. It was really cool being able to work with all these super talented people and get inside their aesthetics and understand where their approach was coming from.
Also because I mostly shoot on film, a lot of my process involves working with printers in darkrooms in the labs. Over my career I’ve used a few different labs and I’ve been really privileged to develop some very close relationship with printers. When I was 20 I used to work with a guy who printed a lot of the Magnum photographers’ stuff. Every morning I would get up, cycle to his lab and stay there for 2 to 3 hours. He’d just show me all the things we could do or he’d do all my prints or we’d just talk. He taught me so much about what was possible with photography and gave me so much confidence. And he’s just one of them. All of these guys have become mentors to me in different ways, because I didn’t have a classical education in photography and these people know their stuff and are super patient.
Has there been a point when you’ve taken a big risk to move forward?
That’s a funny question, because a lot of people in my life around me maybe see me as someone who takes quite bold moves. Often I’ve taken jobs, which I was completely unqualified for, but for me they never felt like risks. They’ve always felt like the only thing I could possibly do at that moment. I think I’ve always been someone who’s passionate and I’ve been extremely lucky that my entire life so far I’ve only ever done jobs I’m really passionate about. In that sense I’ve never had to do a single bit of work in my entire life, it’s always been natural. For example when I left my last job with a brand in London a year or two ago, it was probably quite risky. But again - it felt inevitable. There’s a saying “ fortune favours the bold” and maybe that's a bit true. Before I decided that photography was all I wanted to do six months ago, I’d been quite reserved showing people my work, because I felt I had a lot to learn still, which I do. So I thought I’d just work quietly in the background, build a body of work and when I’m really proud of it, then I’ll push it. But then I realised - you’re always improving, you’re always changing, your work from a year ago never looks good to you - so you might as well put yourself out there now. And as soon as I put myself out there, I had so much positive feedback and so many opportunities and it’s still seems to be happening and I’m still learning which is amazing. I’ve been lucky.
Are your family and friends supportive of what you do?
I think when people see you doing something which is really authentic to you, then of course they are 100 % supportive. Also photography is a cool job, because it gives you good stories to tell. You’re a bit of an explorer: you’re exploring places or other people’s lives and you get to go and sit with interesting people and photograph them, understand the world better and be aware and alive, so I think that's only going to enrich the lives of those around you.
What gives you ideas and inspires you to create such great imagery?
I’m not sure. I think I’m most interested in quite simple things, when things feel really natural and true. I’m interested in empathy, although that sounds pious. That’s why I love portrait photography, although the same thing extends throughout the disciplines, because you get to sit down, you get to look at someone, you get to talk, you get to know them a little and you get to slowly find moments of commonality and hopefully through that create something meaningful. There’s nothing more specific than that. I like it when a photo looks authentic and real, and doesn’t feel contrived or overly directed. In a more practical sense I’m always inspired by other photographers. I love those early colour great american landscape, road trip kind of photographers like Joel Sternfeld, Stephen Shore, William Eggleston. I can look at their photographs for hours - they have such a wonderful relationship with light and this very composed, but also throw-away kind of aesthetic. And it always feels so honest. That’s something that influenced me hugely and I find that style very fascinating.
How would you describe your style?
Whats’ funny is even when I was working as a designer, I always seemed to gravitate towards a rich, bold colour profile in everything I do and that’s something people often identify in my work. I suppose also there’s kind of the looseness I go for, I generally don’t like things looking like they are too deliberate, too composed and I like something that has an emotive hook to it. Ultimately everything I do - even fashion and landscapes - comes from reportage standpoint.
Do you have a routine?
I get up at 7.30 pretty much always, then I meditate for 20 minutes, have an egg white omelette with spinach and an espresso and then I spend maybe an hour doing emails. I keep in touch with people, talk to my lab, arrange production of photoshoots, That’s always a good way to begin the day, it gets your head straight in terms of what you want to achieve. Then I usually cycle to my l lab, where I look at prints we’re doing to make sure they are ready or take the printers through what we need to do. And then I’ll usually come back to the studio and either I’ll be shooting, or I’ll be working on retouching or production for whatever’s happening the next week or two. I’ll find some time to socialise and have dinner sometimes but now days mostly I work into the evening - usually until 11 or so - creating mood boards, making references , and that’s my life pretty much every day.
What do you see yourself doing in a few years?
I hope the same thing I’m doing now, but just more. I love to travel - that’s a really important part of my life and something I’ve not been doing so much recently. At some point I would like not to be based as much in London. London is a very important city for me to be in right now, because it has that creative energy and I have a really good network here, but at some point I’d like to live someplace more sunny and by the sea. I spent a lot of extended periods of time staying abroad by the sea and it always improves your life so immeasurably. I’d like to be travelling more, shooting more, just doing the same work really. I’d like to shoot a mixture of occasional fashion campaigns, occasional reportage, work on exhibitions - variety keeps you fresh and you keep on learning the whole time. As long as I’m taking photographs, I’m happy.
Why did you join Alter-View?
Misha Stroyev, the founder of Alter-View, is a good friend of mine and much of my work has been based around my personal relationships. Which is really important, because you end up with a positive natural energy around your work. I’ve also been interested because it’s an agency with more of a reportage, documentary focus. In London I find my work gravitating more towards fashion, because that’s where most of my network is, but I was really interested to work with an agency, that has this reportage/landscape outlook. It's something I’m excited to explore more.
To see more of James's work go here: