Exploring the World Through Architectural Photography – An Interview with Photographer Mike Kelley

Photography Mike Kelley
Words Thida Sachathep & Andy Macpherson

An unexpected career turn from snowboarding to architectural photography led Mike Kelley to become one of the most renowned photographers in the industry.

Mike’s journey to becoming an architectural photographer first began, somewhat unexpectedly, when he moved to California intending to pursue a professional snowboarding career. Unfortunately, the nature of the sport meant that he experienced numerous injuries. As it happened, however, “it was only as a result of one of these injuries that I ended up meeting my first client,” he explains. “So, while I look back somewhat bitter about it, it led me to something really, really cool in the end.”

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Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, California by Frank Gehry

As a result of his work photographing some of the most cutting-edge new projects, Mike has developed a strong understanding of architecture. In his experience, the mark of a good residential project is not how large, expensive or impressive it is. Ultimately, “it’s got to be liveable. A house needs to be designed in response to the needs of the client,” he reflects. Additionally, “it should fit into its surrounds well. Whether it respects the fabric of the neighbourhood, the natural environment it is in, or the vernacular architecture of the area (historically speaking or regionally speaking) it has got to feel like it was meant to be there.”

Travel has been a key element of Mike’s career to date. “I’ve never really ever been able to sit still. I’ve always loved travel,” he says. Visiting New Zealand, he was struck by the South Island in particular, “basically Milford Sound all the way across to Dunedin and up to Christchurch is just beyond one’s wildest dreams. Have you ever travelled somewhere and just felt like you belonged there? That’s me and New Zealand,” he recalls. Architecturally, he cites the work of Auckland-based Patterson Associates as especially inspiring. In their scale and respect for the environment, Patterson Associates’ houses are “sublime, perfectly positioned and executed and Simon Devitt’s pictures of them are out of this world good. Right there is a perfect marriage of client and photographer, truly breathtaking stuff,” Mike says. “Patterson’s coffee table book has a permanent home on my living room coffee table.”

Azimpur Mosque in Dhaka, Bangladesh, designed by Shatotto Architecture For Green Living

Mike has recently released his own book titled New Architecture Los Angeles, beautifully and comprehensively detailing the city’s contemporary architecture. “It was a huge project. I remember when I got an email from the publisher I tried to play it cool but I was so goddamn excited. What bigger honour can an architectural photographer have than to document their home city for an amazing book like that?” he says. In shooting the projects for the book, he drew inspiration from the abundance of experimentation and different architectural typologies found in Los Angeles. “It’s so incredibly stylistically diverse that it’s almost hard to pin down. I’d say the thing that you see in LA more than anywhere else is improvisation and pushing boundaries,” he explains. In fact, stylistic diversity is almost the only constant, he reflects. “I’d definitely say the most “LA thing” is the experimentation – which is just everywhere.”

“I’d definitely say the most “LA thing” is the experimentation – which is just everywhere.”

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Carla House in Beverly Hills, California by Walker Workshop

As well as releasing the book, Mike has also launched a website as a resource for other architecture photographers called Architectural Photography Almanac. Recognising from first-hand experience not only the difficulties and obstacles but also the opportunities inherent in the occupation of a professional photographer, Mike continually strives to share skills with newcomers to the field. On the website, he communicates his own experiences, challenges and achievements to help other photographers learn about the industry. “I really hope it continues to grow and become a dependable, trustworthy resource for photographers in all stages of their career,” he says.

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Sarbonne Residence in Bel-Air, California by ARYA Group

From traversing alpine slopes on his snowboard to travelling the world as an architectural photographer, with such an unexpected career trajectory, Mike recognises that it is often the less straightforward path that gives rise to opportunities. “As far as one piece of advice goes, say yes to absolutely everything,” he concludes. “Who knows – doors start to open in places you never expected.”

Guest House in Bel-Air, California by Rios Clementi Hale Studios
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“As far as one piece of advice goes, say yes to absolutely everything. Who knows – doors start to open in places you never expected.”

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Published 30 March, 2020
Photography  Mike Kelley
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