Tim Kelly Looks Back to Go Forward


Tim Kelly Looks Back to Go Forward

“My clients appreciate the fact that

they are getting something they

know few people can produce.

They know their piece is going

to be collectable, too. When

they come in, they are

already committed to a

much higher entry level

of purchase. It’s good

for business and good

for me as an artist.”


All images ©Tim Kelly

Tim Kelly

reaches back to

move forward





mitted to a much higher entry level of purim

Kelly, M.Photog.Cr., F-ASP, is looking ahead—toward

his immediate future in the Orlando, Fla., market where

his portait studio is located, and far beyond to his legacy. To get a clear view,

though, he’s looking deep into his past. The New Jersey native, who started

working in a photography studio in 1968, has run Tim Kelly Portraits in

form or another since 1978. Two years

ago, he embarked on the business’s latest

incarnation as a high-end, film-based studio

working with the Fine Artists Management

agency in Atlanta to secure and vet clients.

That agency’s name is indicative of Kelly’s

thinking about his new business model, one

akin to visual artists in other mediums. “That

was a big, big change, to step out of retail and

handle the business like a fine artist,” he says.

“I needed to find a vehicle for what I wanted

to create, what I wanted to be, what I wanted

to do every day. For me, anything that resembles

retail was something I didn’t want. I

couldn’t take another ‘What’s the 8-by-10

charge?’ or having to prove to a senior’s

mom that I’m worth what I charge.”

This was a calculated decision as much as

a heeding of his heart. His business—which

includes a customer service rep, a studio

assistant, a retouch artist, and a video department

run by his son—halved its volume of

clientele, which might have happened anyway

given current economic and industry

conditions, Kelly suggests. Even so, he’s filling

a lucrative niche with limited competition

in selling large-format art portraits in

the form of photogravures, platinumpalladium,

and silver prints.

“My clients appreciate the fact that they

are getting something they know few people

can produce,” says Kelly. “They know

their piece is going to be collectable, too.

When they come in, they are already com-

chase. It’s good for business and good for

me as an artist.”

Kelly, who has a portfolio of award-winning

work from 45 years in the business, is

pointing both his business and artistic compasses

toward galleries and print sales, both

of which had long been sidebars to his studio

business. By his estimate, Kelly is spending a

quarter of his time “honing my ultimate

portfolio,” with an eye toward a new exhibit

and book. He’s gone back to the darkroom to

reprint his collection in platinum-palladium.

“Platinum has no enemies; the prints last

forever,” he says. “It takes more skill and labor

to do it, but those prints are highly valued.”

Kelly’s ideal clientele includes collectors

and galleries in addition to studio customers.

“I’m already making clients happy, so I’m

working toward a body of work that will go

on after I do,” he says. Even with the cut in

volume, he figures his studio work will yield

a half-dozen images a year that could end up

among his collectible prints.


Kelly was an early convert to digital photography,

but when it became ubiquitous,

he found a new competitive edge: “I’m

going back to what I love most, handmade

work.” Black-and-white prints became his

primary product about three years ago.

Then he built his own wet darkroom so he

could produce silver and platinum prints.

In addition to his 4x5 Gowlandflex twinlens

reflex camera, another key piece of his

“new” equipment is something he bought

as office decor about the time he went filmless:

an 8x10 Century No. 7 Studio Camera.

He had the lens and shutter serviced and a

flash sync added.

“I’m not a gear hound at all. I use what

works,” he says. “If I don’t use something in

a year, it’s gone.” He uses Photogenic lighting

and Larson soft boxes, and he has

designed some of his own backgrounds,

but most of his current favorites are from

Backgrounds by Mahue.

He has stockpiled Polaroid PN55 positive/

negative film to use in the Gowlandflex. “It

provides a negative and a print, so I have

both at once and I know I’m satisfied,” he

says. Of course, not only is Polaroid extinct,

the film itself is outdated. “You buy boxes

and you’re not sure it works,” Kelly says. He

uses it sparingly. He’s also shooting with

4x5 Kodak film, but when the PN55 disappears

completely, it will be a sad day for the

artist in Kelly. “It’s just a beautiful film. But

when it goes, it goes.”


Tim Kelly uses a standard when it comes to smiling that he takes from the old masters

of portrait painting: You’ll seldom see any teeth. “Most of my people are not smiling. It

gives you a more powerful piece.” One benchmark of great art is how long it holds the

viewer’s attention, says Kelly. “If it’s smiling at me, three seconds. If it’s contemplative,

I look at it longer.” He points out that portrait painters of old never showed teeth in

their paintings. Mona Lisa’s fame is largely due to her enigmatic smile.


Kelly says he has always approached photography

as an art; it’s the business around

it that changes. “I’ve always drifted into art

and back into retail and back and forth.”

From 1988 to 1990 he had a high-end

studio and gallery on Park Avenue in Winter

Park, Fla., and a business model similar

to his present one. “I wouldn’t meet a client

until they had a contract for a portrait,”

Kelly says. “I was an aloof artist back

then.” Though the venture was successful,

he decided he didn’t like the storefront

location. He built a 2,400-squarefoot

gallery and studio behind his house,

which he continues to use. While Kelly’s

business has long been a high-end portrait

studio, over time it drifted back into a more

retail-like shop.

“It’s now time to reinvent ourselves again,”

he says, “which is to my design and delight.” ■

See more of Tim Kelly’s work at


Eric Minton is a writer and editor in

Washington, D.C.

64 • www.ppmag.com

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