Cross Road Blues: An Interview with Oli Kellett

British photographer Oli Kellett has traveled across America to capture people waiting at crosswalks. Besides creating a stunning body of work highlighting these solitary moments with ambient light, Oli’s series also takes on a political undertone.

How did you get into photography? Did you always want to be a photographer? 

I was taking black and white photos as a teenager. Mainly of clichéd things most people do when they pick up a camera for the first few years. Photos of local people while on holiday etc. Then while at St. Martins Art College, I discovered the work of Magnum and street photography in general. For a long time before discovering Winogrand and Friedlander. I was wresting about ‘what’ I should be making pictures about as a middle-class white person interested in documenting the world (in fact I wrote my thesis on it). Discovering the work of great America Street photographers from the 60’s onwards felt like a bit of a weight off my shoulders, they made it seem like it was ok just to go out, not know exactly what I was looking for. So for a few years, during art college then a couple of years after, I made black and white street photography, while also having a full-time job as an Art Director in Advertising Agencies. Looking back, I see these years as practice really, training. It felt like I had a permit to go and explore. It still feels like that sometimes. But I wasn’t really looking for anything deeper than the surface. I liked the interesting compositions of people moving about the city and the strangeness of people and the situations people get themselves in.

In Cross Road Blues, you capture your subjects in a single moment in time: solitary, sun-soaked strangers waiting to cross the street at various crosswalks in America. Can you shed some light on your thought process when capturing these moments?  

The significance of this moment of a figure waiting at the crossroads becomes an image about decisions, directions and morality and ultimately the weight of decision making resting on the shoulders of the American people.

You traveled across America for this project. Which city stood out to you the most? Can you discuss the dichotomy of shooting in a bustling city like New York City versus a smaller city?

I liked Chicago a lot but maybe it’s because Harry Callahan and Ray Metzler shot there so I just felt like I knew the place through their images. NY is very hard to shoot in. I got nothing in 8 days.

Besides being aesthetically pleasing, your images also have a political undertone. What is your underlying message?

During my trips I made to the U.S., I kept coming back to this idea of the crossroads and how it’s represented direction and decisions and specifically, this idea of a moral compass, but also a bigger idea of people and individuals being at the centre of political ideologies of the left and the right.

What photographers or artists inspire you?

Photographers I’m always coming back to: Mark Steinmetz. Berenice Abbot. Harry Callahan. Mitch Epstein. Ray Metzker. Winogrand. Josef Koudelka, Walker Evans. Diane Arbus. Paul Graham.

The long history of amazing photography made on the street is so daunting, it’s truly terrifying. I’m inspired by the photographers before me who go through the process of going out and walking the streets and coming back with something profound. 

What advice do you have for photographers just starting out in the industry?

If you love photography, keep the day job and keep photography as a hobby. That’s the only way to keep at it for a long time I feel and maybe after many years you can give up the day job. Photography needs time. Art college will teach you a few things, but photography really is just an extension of the self so you need to be questioning things in order for the work to be interesting. 

You can find more of Oli’s work through his website and Instagram.

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