Kelsey Bennett first started taking photos and developing them in her grandmother's darkroom at the tender age of 12. Before that, she would assist her granny in impromptu photo shoots with dolls, all around the house. Constantly surrounded by artists of some sort (her grandfather is the legendary jazz singer Tony Bennett), it was only a matter of time before Kelsey would grow up to become one herself. After a brief stint working for Annie Leibovitz in 2005, Kelsey bagged her first magazine cover for arts and entertainment magazine The Dig, and has been shooting ever since. Inspired by the works of Cindy Sherman and Diane Arbus, Kelsey's still and moving images operate somewhere between the real and the surreal. Think Rorschach tests made from tampons, girls dissolving sugar babies with their tongue, two male baseball fans (one Red Sox, the other Yankees) snogging in front of Boston's Fenway Park, and intimate portraits of music legends, from Amy Winehouse to Aretha Franklin, that she took while touring the world with her grandfather. Fresh from a collaboration with all-girl art collective Girls Only - a three-day exhibition at London's Celestine Eleven featuring lots and lots of breasts.
Tell me a bit about yourself and where you grew up.
I grew up in New Jersey as well as in NYC. I liked having both worlds. Living in the suburbs, I could meet my friends on the corner and ride bikes all day and then in the city I could jump on the subway, buy a fake ID, get a piercing, and go to a show. What I loved most growing up was the fact that I was surrounded by so many artists and musicians. Being witness to someone in their artistic process always made me feel calm.
When did you first become interested in photography?
When I was around six my grandmother and I would spend all day together setting up shoots using props like dolls, which I would sit in for. She also had this kit, I'm not sure what it was called, but it consisted of a special kind of paper that when left in the sun with objects such as leaves and flowers left on top would create an impression of what looked like a permanent shadow — much like what goes on in the darkroom. I was always fascinated by this effect, it was magic to me. Then when I was 12 my grandmother set up her old darkroom in the basement and taught me how to print.
Can you remember the first photo you ever took?
Yes, it was a picture of another kid taking a picture of me at a pool party. I still have it.
Growing up were there any standout photographers or images that made you want to start taking your own pictures?
Cindy Sherman and Diane Arbus are two photographers whose work I first recognised as having a certain style and aesthetic that I related to.
What does photography do for you that other artistic mediums can't?
It's reactive and it's immediate. It allows me to interact with the world or sit back and observe it. I feel like it's an exploratory and social art form in a way that others are not.
What was it like assisting Annie Leibovitz?
I was only on a few shoots with her but something that always struck me about her was her concentration and patience. I could feel her reverence towards the craft, the process as well as the people she was photographing.
How would you describe your artistic aesthetic?
I will say that my work is heavily inspired by film; I like working with colour, as well as the surreal and the hyperreal.
What was it like working with your grandfather on his Duets II album?
I love working with my family. My father manages my grandfather, my uncle produces his records and my cousin does the videography. To artistically explore and create with my family or a group of friends makes me feel like we're all part of the same tribe.We travelled around the world shooting musicians. One of my favourite shoots on the tour was with Amy Winehouse. We were in a room in Abbey Road Studios, the whole room was made out of geometrically shaped mirrors. It felt like a science experiment trying to figure out the best way to shoot in there, I loved it.
Tell me a bit about your recent collaboration with Girls Only?
I met Antonia Marsh in NYC and we were very much into each other's work and when she returned to London she asked me to be her first Girls Only LDN resident. We ended up co-curating Pistil! Pistol! which made the whole process even more fun and just makes sense with Girls Only's community feel. Part of what I like about working with Girls Only is that it offers a safe place to create, separate from the male dominated art world. I feel like I can create work with Girls Only about being female without being self-conscious or cringing at the idea of being questioned about that.
Do you think being a girl affects your style of photography? Should it?
I don't think it has to. But, in my case it occasionally does. The colours and aesthetics that appealed to me as a little girl definitely found their way into my style. In my more conceptual work I do like telling stories from a female's perspective.
What are you working on at the moment?
I'm developing a conceptual series with my boyfriend, Michael Bible, called Mother May I, taking inspiration from mostly religious and mythological iconology, exploring and deconstructing the idea of the mother. I've shot one image for the series. When I get back to NYC I'm going to keep going on that. I'll also be thrown straight into Fashion Week; I'm shooting polaroids with Impossible Project for Interview Magazine. Another project I'm working on with an organization called The Pablove Shutterbugs, a foundation that provides photo workshops for kids suffering with cancer. Over the autumn I assisted teaching in the workshop and now I'm helping them with their fundraising and final exhibition for the kids in the spring.
Text Tish Weinstock
Photography Kelsey Bennett