Portraits of a city

Brian Kelly used a drone to capture images of Grand Rapids — his first muse.

Brian Kelly, the seasoned Grand Rapids photographer, is 52 now, with more than two decades in the field behind him. He has a lot of long thoughts about what makes a good shot — and has a portfolio to back them up — the spindly, soaring work of a Spanish architect, a boxer mid-swing, Anderson Cooper with a little sphinxlike smile. Now in the back half of his career, he has a book coming out soon, “Aerial: Grand Rapids from Above.”

That book might be one of his most personal works yet. He’s a well-known portrait guy and commercial photography expert, but he got his start shooting Grand Rapids. And his new book, “Aerial: Grand Rapids from Above,” is a return to those roots.

Shot with a drone earlier this year, during the coronavirus pandemic — when other work had dried up — it feels like a love letter to the city that launched his career. The camera floats past Medical Mile, wreathed in purple clouds beyond, as its windows glow a pale gold. The Blue Bridge, delicate on glassy water, is perfectly reflected in the Grand River as the sun comes up. You get the idea.

The book also was shot while his youngest daughter, Faith, was recovering at Mary Free Bed Hospital after bilateral leg surgery. She lives with cerebral palsy, and the sudden onset of the coronavirus pandemic meant quarantine restrictions slammed into place at Mary Free Bed, in Michigan and around the country. Suddenly, Kelly’s wife was staying with her while Kelly and his other two daughters stayed at home. It was, to put it lightly, taxing.

“And so long story short, I started to fly my drone a lot, just because it was something to do,” Kelly said. “I could be creative, and I just started to fly around the city and take photographs, and I found the city so calming and nurturing at sunrise and sunset.”

And so, before long: the book.

“I could be creative, and I just started to fly around the city and take photographs, and I found the city so calming and nurturing at sunrise and sunset.”
Brian Kelly

For all of Kelly’s success, he started out small. Before photography, he was caught in his mid-20s treading water in retail management, still trying to figure out what he wanted to do. He’d graduated from Northview High School in 1986 and said he “dabbled” for a little bit at Grand Rapids Community College and Grand Valley State University for a few years after. He didn’t have a plan yet.

“I was one of those kids where college really was a struggle for me. Mostly because I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” Kelly said. It wasn’t until his 20s that he went back to GRCC and took a photography class — when he signed up, it was just an elective to knock out on the way to something else. But suddenly he was shooting in black-and-white, huddled in a darkroom and making prints, engrossed in the art and the alchemy of capturing the city around him.

“And then the whole world changed for me,” he said, remembering the magic of shooting Grand Rapids — the river, the bridges, the winding traffic trailing little rivers of light. “I never got an associate’s [degree]. I just took about three more photography classes and I was off and running.”

Soon he’d made his first big sale: photos of bridges and the Grand River to a group of Amway Grand Plaza executives who had wandered into a coffee shop showing.

“I was still taking photo classes, you know, and I had this sale to a four-star hotel. And it got me thinking, maybe I should have a small gallery downtown,” he said. “I’m still very ambitious, but, looking back now, it looks a little crazy. You have one company that buys your work, and then I opened up a small gallery.”

From those first few pictures — into the new gallery, into portraits and commercial work and into videography and more — Kelly has built a career.

Nowadays, he does portraits, too — a maybe unexpected turn for a guy who got into this on bridges, skylines and the river. But he’s shot all sorts of people you’ve heard of before, and plenty you haven’t. And this, especially, is where the long thoughts come in.

Kelly’s theory of portraits is about going further than a smile — disarming the person he’s shooting and finding something revelatory in a glance or a scarce smile or an expression. He’s interested in something more intimate. And that shows through in his portraits. Trevor Noah, the Daily Show host and comedy great, is photographed stone-serious, brow furrowed, staring straight into the camera. He’s not looking in your direction; he’s looking at you.

There’s a touch of this — call it a mature eye — to everything that Kelly does. It shows up as much in portraits as it does in his eye for the geometry of a city, where he said he feels perfectly at home — in the old place where the new book is taking him back.

“The book is a kind of portrait of the city,” Kelly said — a deeper look not just at its surface, but what it is, and really who it is. “(It’s) a new way to think of Grand Rapids.”

‘Aerial: Grand Rapids from Above’

Copies of “Aerial” and prints of the photos are available for order on the book’s website, aerialgrandrapids.com. Proceeds are set to help support Mary Free Bed and Disability Advocates of Kent County. Brad Kaufmann, director of planned giving at Mary Free Bed’s foundation, said the money will help support pediatric work.

“The funding, no matter what it is, is going to truly help in this initiative because pediatric programs traditionally do not make money,” Kaufmann said. “I mean, they lose money for hospitals. And so, philanthropy is very, very key to allowing Mary Free Bed and other hospitals in our area and across the country to provide adequate and outstanding care to children.”


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