Making Fashion and Beauty: An Interview with Ryan Michael Kelly


Whether highly stylized fashion editorials or delicately balanced beauty images, Ryan Michael Kelly’s photographs share a distinctive, clean aesthetic. Originally trained as a painter, Kelly switched to photography after encountering the work of Richard Avedon and David LaChapelle. By the time he graduated from the School of Visual Arts (SVA), in 2004, Kelly had already begun building a reputation in New York’s fashion world while shooting model tests and editorials.

Over the years, Kelly has developed an impressive client base that includes Ann Taylor, Bloomingdale’s, Cole Haan, Emanuel Ungaro, Nike, Maybelline, Pantene, Nordstrom, Theory, and Lord & Taylor. His editorials have appeared in Harper’s Bazaar KZ, Grazia (UK, MX), L’Officiel (ME, Ukraine), Schön!, and Vogue Nippon, among others.

Photographs © Ryan Michael Kelly

Cory Rice: You went from school straight into shooting fashion commercially. What was that transition like?

Ryan Michael Kelly: When I graduated from SVA I was doing a ton of model tests and those led to editorials. Model agents started talking to photo agents about me. I signed with an agency the summer right after I graduated. It was kind of interesting because I didn’t really work with assistants before then. I remember when I signed with the agency, my first job was for Vanity Fair Italia. While I was setting up my lights I got a phone call: “Where are you?! We’ve been looking for you!” When I told them what I was doing they said, “Your assistant should be setting up your lights!”—but I didn’t have an assistant. My roommate at the time was assisting Ellen von Unwerth and Bettina Rheims, so he stepped up and helped me on a couple of shoots. It took a while for me to relax about setting up, and focus on doing the things that I was expected to do, like talking to the client about what we were shooting.

Eventually, my agent told me to ask my roommate to take me on the set of one of the shoots where he was assisting to see how things work. He brought me to an Ellen von Umworth shoot for H&M that had Heidi Klum and Naomi Campbell and a whole audience of models. I walked in and was like, “This is a photo shoot?!” There were about 300 people there. The photographer didn’t show up until noon when everyone was eating lunch. She strolls in and starts eating, too—everyone had been there since 7:00 a.m. and not a single photograph had been taken. Then she starts shooting like a tornado, and it is all over in a few hours.

CR: Do you have any advice for photographers trying to get a foot in the door today?

RMK: The best way to make it in the industry is to assist the biggest possible photographer you can find, and don’t look at it as something where you are going to become a fashion photographer in six months. Approach it more like a six-year plan during which you are meeting the best makeup artists, hair stylists, and clothing stylists. Their assistants are the ones you will be working with when you have downtime. Then you’re building teams through that while watching the best of the best work.

CR: Do you have a team that you use over and over?

RMK: It changes and evolves all the time. There are people who I have worked with for a long time. I wish I could say I’ve had the same team from the beginning. There are some people that I have worked with from the beginning until now. But it is more a matter of their schedule versus my schedule. It is hard to do a Steven Meisel and Pat McGrath kind of thing unless you are shooting jobs every single day and you can get that person on the job every single day. They need to go off and make money and do things, too. It’s harder now to have a team than it was in the past. You should have a network of people. I think of people in terms of what they are good for: celebrities, artistic beauty, etc.

CR: Is it difficult to maintain your artistic identity when collaborating with a team?

RMK: It can be very difficult—especially when you are starting off. That’s when you need the biggest voice. You are essentially creating your look at that point. It can be tough, and I always stress that with assistants. If you have a strong idea and you approach an agency, they might say, “Look, we want this kind of photo.” In order to do what your team wants to do, what the agency wants you to do for the model, and what you want to do, you might have to do three photo shoots that day. The agency might want something super clean on a white background; shoot that in the morning. The team might want to do some weird hats that you just aren’t feeling, but you do it to give them their photos. It’s give and take because you are working with a bunch of other people. You shouldn’t be thinking, “Me, me, me, me.” After a while you build out of that stage and people are like, “Ok I get what you are going for and I want to work with you on that.” Then you don’t need to do the funny hats or shoot the girl against a white wall.

CR: When you are working with a client, where does a concept originate?

RMK: A lot of the time, fashion editors will approach me and say, “Hey, there is a celebrity we want to shoot, these are the clothes we are thinking.” Sometimes I come up with a concept, and pitch and shoot it. Sometimes a fashion editor will have a concept. Sometimes the magazine will have a concept. Sometimes we will shoot something for fun and then that will turn into the concept. There is no specific way that things happen. It comes down to who the client is, and how much of a budget they have. The budget determines how much of a say they have. The larger the budget, the more control they have; the smaller the budget, the less control they have.

CR: Where is bulk of your work coming from these days?

RMK: Most of my work now is fashion and beauty print advertising. A couple of years ago, I was very busy with catalogs, but most of that has turned digital. I try not to not take jobs that require an excessive number of shots unless it is someone I really want to work with. Some designers will do look books that I really like—then it is more like image making than an assembly line-type thing.

CR: The transition from unpaid to paid work seems like the most difficult step for fashion photographers getting started.

RMK: I know people who used to be shooting $5,000-a-day catalog jobs, and are now doing them for free because they want the exposure. But that ends up turning photography into just a hobby, because there will be no jobs if everyone is shooting for exposure. The middle ground is disappearing. You have photographers at the top getting paid a lot and then you have photographers at the bottom doing work for free.

I have a friend who is doing pretty well finding those middle ground jobs, but at the same time I kind of nudge him sometimes to be like “Hey, this price is too low.” You shouldn’t be bringing in $20,000 worth of gear, shooting at a very low rate, and doing all the retouching for basically nothing. If you break some of those types of jobs down, you end up working for like $5 an hour. You spend two days shooting, three days retouching, formatting files, and color correcting, then you are spending time on the phone with the client. If you make $1,000, it sounds like a good thing, but you just spent a week and a half working.

On the other hand, you could go and assist for a day. To me that is a much better thing because, at the end of the day, you’re done. And you are able to work on your stuff in the meantime until you get jobs where people pay more. But rates have dropped significantly. E-com rates that used to be $3,500-5,500 a day are now like $400. You are going to go shoot mind-numbing work for an assistant rate and kill your creativity. I think you are much better off being on set, and seeing something creative happen then being in a studio slave-laboring away. You are being a button pusher at that point. You aren’t really making pictures.

CR: Do you have any gear that you find indispensable?

RMK: I have a lot of equipment, but it’s mostly stuff I have accumulated for specific shoots. The idea that you have to buy something very expensive to get the best images is a total hoax. Equipment is important, but that’s not what makes a good photo. What makes a good photo is having a good idea or being at the right place at the right time. I find that some of my stuff that people like the most was made very simply.

I don’t ever use zoom lenses; I always use primes. I know you can get a lot done with a zoom lens, but the problem I find with a zoom is that people don’t move as much when they use them. If you are using a prime lens and you want to get a little bit more of this or that, you tend to move. It keeps the whole picture closer in mind while you are shooting.

When I’m doing fashion, I shoot tethered so that the team can keep track of the shots. Sometimes you have to be careful though, so that everyone is not just looking at the screen and missing things in real time. You don’t want to have someone reaching in to fix a pantleg from three shots ago when the model has already changed position. But, all in all, shooting tethered gives you such an advantage. Clients will expect it. You can answer a lot of those questions while shooting tethered. Especially in beauty and fashion, never shoot to card; shoot tethered. You are giving yourself and your team a big advantage.

CR: In terms of maintaining a distinct aesthetic, it seems like retouching would be something to carefully control. Do you handle all your retouching or do you send that out?

RMK: I retouch all my editorial beauty. I have a retoucher who does all the advertising work for brands like Pantene, Maybelline, etc. Anything I shoot that is like that goes to a retouching house because they have the facilities to handle the client through each stage, step by step. If I do something for a magazine, then I am going to do it. More recently, post-production has drawn back so much, and I’ve been doing it for so long, that I can look at an image and say, “Let’s change this, this, and this,” and I’ve gone from beauty images taking eight hours to maybe two hours. And now you’re not really smoothing anything out anymore. It’s more or less things like, “Oh, the lip got smudged, so that needs [to be] fixed” type of stuff. For the most part, I try to keep the texture there. I even work a lot now where I don’t even have hair and makeup teams; I just have the models do their own simple stuff, which keeps it kind of rough and raw.

CR: What makes for a strong fashion photograph?

RMK: The big thing about fashion is not the lens or the light, it’s the research and knowing the history—why something makes sense or doesn’t make sense. You need to be aware of what is going on with fashion—trends and things like that—but you also have to understand the larger history. I think a lot of younger people look at fashion and say, “Cool photo!” but they don’t necessarily know why. I buy a lot of books from the ’60s and ’70s for inspiration. Everything is being regurgitated constantly, so you have to figure out a way to put your little spin on it. With as many people shooting as there are right now, your little spin is minute, so it has to be strong. I started out as a painter, and it took me a long time to think of photography as art—as something more than just documenting a scene. Now I like to say, I make pictures rather than take pictures. You don’t stumble upon anything with fashion. Everything is on you: if it is good, it’s on you, if it’s bad, it’s on you.

To see more of Ryan Michael Kelly’s work, visit his website and follow him on Instagram.


Very interesting article. I always have wondered what you need to have to be in the fashion industry and this help me to clarify the situation.