Hunting for the Quintessential Old London: we chat with Val Kelly, "the singing photographer”

Born in London, brought up in the midlands and back living in the city for nearly twenty years, we catch up with Forest Hill based photographer Val Kelly.

Why have you chosen photography as your method of artistic communication?

I actually have two forms of artistic expression. I am a singer/songwriter as well as a photographer. I have always had a camera with me, shooting as a working backpacking traveller to locations, musicians & bands at venues & festivals I perform at. I love the freedom of being able to shoot wherever I go and to be able to stir emotion & really connect with people through my images.

At the time of the economic crash, when many of our regular bookers & clients changed tact, a large number of musicians I performed alongside became teachers. I asked myself what other skills aside from performing could I tap into? I was fifty percent of the way there with my photography, so I decided to focus more (sorry!) on that.

Who is your favourite photographer and why?

I have a few. I’ve always been a big Henri Cartier-Bresson fan probably because I had a friend who for 24years would always send me black and white postcards of his images. Others include Eve Arnold, Annie Leibovitz, Mario Testino & my most recent favourite is a French photographer & now friend Jean-Michel Berts. Love them all, however, I don’t spend that much time following or studying them (or others) as I’m so busy doing my own thing, developing my own style.

You describe your recent photography as capturing the quintessential old London. What is the historic slant in your photography which interests you so much?

It’s actually the romantic, nostalgic side of London more than the historical that interests me. I’ve been shooting for quite a few years. I started out shooting a bit of everything but as you go on you begin to fine tune and gravitate towards specific things. Now having decided on my take of London, when I’m out & about, if I am moved by the aesthetics or quirkiness of something, I’ll shoot it and ask questions about the history or it’s story later.

Each time I exhibit people come up to me wanting to share their memories of the place shown, feeding back to me the emotions I wanted to evoke and mirroring my ideas for shooting it in the first place. For example, The Fridge; an iconic venue in Brixton. They’d say, “oh you know when I was a kid it was called the ABC, it was a cinema and we used to go there for ‘ tuppence’ and then it was a seedy, dirty old man’s cinema, then it became The Fridge, and now it’s called the Electric” .....I love that, people sharing their stories.

When you are taking your imagery, what are your main compositional considerations?

Again, it really is instinctual....but I guess I do see images in b&w before they’re shot and/or processed. I generally don’t plan my shots or my shoots. Many photographers go out and do a recce or two or three. I don’t.  I decide where I’ll go for that day with a very loose idea about the theme or subject, then I just wander.

Do you have a favourite lens?

I have too many! All my lenses are prime lenses. I’m a Canon girl. I like my latest 24-70mm which I’m still getting used to, but the 135mm I love, especially for portraits, street and candid shots. It has a beautiful soft focus and gives that lovely blurred background. My cameras - I started off with a 350D, which is entry level, just to work out how to use a DSLR and now I use a 5D MKII.

How do you perceive London’s rapidly evolving social and physical evolution?

I find it exciting, but at the same time have mixed emotions. Through exhibiting my photography I’m constantly meeting & speaking with people who, triggered by an image they see on display, tell me firsthand about their communities, how they are changing out of their control, how the demographic is changing within that and how their communities are being destroyed quite callously and harshly. It’s a complex issue because I think it’s great to have change. It’s that argument of if your place is changing for the better, especially if you have kids, then surely your kids will have a better life and opportunities, also your place will be more beautiful and aesthetic, but then... there is the character which is lost and the characters which will have to move out. The things, places & people who made the area attractive and made people want to move there and invest in the first place will be lost.

City wise, I love the futuristic next to the old and that’s why I’m recording Old London as that’s going too; a  side of London which most people don’t see or even know exists! They walk through it, pass it every day, taking it all for granted.

How long have you been practising photography?

I’ve been shooting since I was knee high to a grasshopper but wasn’t aware of it. I found a few photos after my mum had passed, photos I’d taken around the age of 9...seems I had an eye for it even then. As a professional, I started to own my artistry as a photographer around a year and a half ago.

What has been the most pivotal moment so far in your career as a photographer?

I would say my first exhibition and foray into the art world was when I was offered a space by renowned collagist & sculptor David Mach RA in his studio as part of Havelock Walk’s artists ( bi-annual group show.

I literally just put together what I had. Being self taught, I must say that as excited as I was at the time, I did feel a little like a fish out of water ‘I’m a singer who dabbles a little in photography’ I’d say...until during my 3rd exhibition, one of David’s assistants said ‘Val, stop calling yourself a dabbler! You’re a photographer!’. Well it took me a few more years to grow into it.

Approximately one and a half years ago, after years of hearing myself speak about wanting to ‘take things more seriously and get myself out there as a photographer’, overnight I made the decision to stop speaking and looked for a personal space to exhibit. I turned a small store room in the back of a charity shop into a gallery and then in the months which followed began selling my art & learning how to become an arty business woman ...leapt from “I occasionally...’ to ‘I am’ a photographer, this is my name and this is my company, Sasara.”

Now as I put my work out and share my concepts, more people are returning to buy my work. Contemporary nostalgia is what I create. The art world - it’s a business, it’s commercial. Sometimes I call myself a ‘photographic prostitute’! We all want to sell our art, right?  Once I began’ exposing myself’ (artwork) the art fairs & events came and you (Focus LDN) appeared - it’s great! You’re my first pish-posh gallery, so I’m really chuffed because it tells me I’m doing the right thing. Every time I’ve gotten out there the feedback has been good. I love it! 

Val will be exhibiting in this October's Londoner's Compass