In his personal project Detroit Portraits, city native Brian Kelly strived to shine a light on the inspiring people of his hometown in stark contrast to the well-documented abandonment and ruins of a bygone era. While much of the photographic work coming out of Detroit often focused on the cityscape and decay, Kelly was more interested by the many amazing people he was meeting within the city; from entrepreneurs to artists, from business leaders to recovering drug addicts who were now rising above their past. It was these people Brian knew made up the soul of Detroit, and he set out to show just that.
Always a self-starter, Kelly assigned himself the Detroit Portraits project. He launched the series by creating a Kickstarter campaign, asking for $7,000 to fund the project. Showing 30 portraits online of the to-be project to his potential supporters, he was able to clearly explain his aim. This was to be a project about the people of Detroit— those who have been there doing amazing things, but unfortunately have been pushed to the margins for the sake of photographing the American tragedy that Detroit often comes to represent. Brian successfully raised the needed money for Detroit Portraits, and in doing so successfully created an early audience for the work.
His process in making the portraits required him to take the time to meet the subjects and get a sense of who they were, exploring their backstory, and then searching for a location for the portrait that was significant to the subject personally. Many of the images were shot in places in which the subject themselves suggested.
Not only was this project a practice in engaging his subjects, but also an exercise in technical exploration. Brian wanted to continue to develop the specific lighting style used in Detroit Portraits; an outdoor environment lit heroically. The background is a bit darker, directing the viewer’s attention to the subject. The surrounding details inform who they are and their relationship to the city.
Having these images from his personal work mixed into his commercial portfolio helps show potential clients what he can create for them. Though commercial clients tend to play it safer with lighting— and lean towards the flatter side— showing them how he has mastered a specific style of lighting can help art directors and buyers start to think how they can use that in their own work.
Brian’s portfolio is one third personal work, the majority of that being from Detroit Portraits. His personal work gives weight to the rest of his commercial and editorial work. When sitting down for reviews, he finds the personal work is what gets the most attention. Having all these stories to tell about the subjects in his work allows him to engage on a deeper level with his reviewers. In the end, it comes full circle back to why he started Detroit Portraits to begin with— to engage with people often ignored, because this is where the gems often lie.