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BEST OF 2012, Kelly Gorham
Bozeman, MT
Project: Assignment for Montana State University's magazine to document students who come from the smallest towns in Montana.

© Kelly Gorham

© Kelly Gorham


Montana State University (MSU) staff photographer Kelly Gorham trekked the back roads of his home state to showcase exceptional MSU students hailing from Montana’s smallest, most remote towns for the university magazine. “In one week, I logged more than 2,000 miles, visiting places with names like Pony and Coffee Creek,” Gorham says. “I was working under tight art direction, so the only real variables were the towns themselves, but I enjoyed the challenge of capturing the subjects’ character. The biggest ah-ha moment was that everyone considered Bozeman (population 37,000) a big city. Some of the towns I visited had fewer than ten residents.”

ASMP: How long have you been in business?

Kelly Gorham: I’ve been a full-time photographer for 17 years. Most of this time I’ve been a staff shooter. I’ve worked for newspapers, a corporation, and for the last five years I’ve been the senior photographer for Montana State University’s communications office.

ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?

KG: 18 years.

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?

KG: Editorial portraiture, journalism, multimedia and sports.

ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable professional tool?

KG: The ability to listen and tell stories visually.

ASMP: What piece (or pieces) of gear could you not do without?

KG: I’m not much of a gear-head. I really see cameras as tools, so I use what I need for the assignment. If pressed, I would say a collapsible reflector is about the most brilliant photographic device ever made.

ASMP: What is unique about your style/approach or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers and their work?

KG: I’ve been told by editors that what sets me apart is my attitude, willingness to work as a part of a team and to commit to long projects. I see so many photographers with big attitudes, and I think it holds them back. I try to be nice to everyone and I listen to what they have to say.

ASMP: For this series, you were assigned by Montana State University to document students who come from Montana’s smallest towns. The resulting “heavily art directed” photos were published in the university’s magazine. Please describe your collaboration with the art director and how he/she guided the shoot production. What is your approach to working with art directors who have a strong presence?

KG: Art directors and editors look at a lot of photography. Therefore, they have a thousand-foot-view of a project as opposed to photographers, who have a narrow, self-absorbed view. I collaborate by listening to what they want. Then I figure out how to get it for them. On this project the art director, writer, editor and I all discussed options at length and determined as a team this would make the most compelling illustration of the story. I worked pretty loosely on the first subject and then had a review with the art director and editor where we tightened the art direction further based on what we liked from the first shoot. As the shoots progressed, the art director was able to guide me based on what she saw as needs for the layout.

ASMP: What was the timeframe for this project? How many subjects did you photograph and how much ground did you cover? Were there any unforeseen logistical issues that needed to be resolved on the fly?

KG: From the first concept meeting to pre-press the project was about five months. I photographed eleven people and covered over 2,000 miles. The logistical issue is the size of Montana. Even though I’m a native of the state, there are many places I haven’t been, and I booked some of my shoots a little too tightly based on what I was seeing on the map. In reality, some of the roads are more slowly travelled, so I had to hoof it a bit to make my next assignment on a couple of occasions.

ASMP: Did you travel with an assistant or other crew for these shoots? Please talk about the travel arrangements and logistics for this.

KG: I rarely work with assistants, but the news director went with me on one leg of the journey to the far reaches of Eastern Montana so he could visit with some newspapers on the route. On one stretch of road, five hours between towns, we had an in-depth discussion about aliens. Logistically, I had to figure how I could get from point A to point B by a certain time and then get to a town with a hotel before moving on. Unexpected bits of road construction and cattle drives caused occasional delays.

ASMP: Was there much post-production work done on these images? If so, please describe this work and how long it took to complete the post-production process.

KG: I imported the photos using Lightroom and applied color correction via an X-Rite Color Munki. Beyond that, we only did resizing and sharpening for the magazine.

ASMP: In your experience, are there any qualities people from small towns possess that those raised elsewhere do not?

KG: I’ve been to rural areas all over the U.S., and I think the dominant characteristic could be described as self-reliant. Rural people are very capable of handling just about anything that comes their way.

ASMP: You also do a lot of environmental portraits in indoor settings. What’s in your kit for indoor lighting? Please talk about the technical aspect of making these types of portraits.

KG: I used to drag around hundreds of pounds of gear, but six years ago I switched to mostly Speedlights for location work. My daily grab kit consists of three SB-800s, an SU-800 transmitter and a Softliter as a modifier, although I tend to bounce off walls a lot. I also use Pocketwizards and have a Calumet Genesis with battery pack that I’ll drag out when I need more power. As a staff shooter, I’ve had days where I do over ten location shoots in a day, so speed is important. I may only have ten minutes to light and shoot an environmental portrait.

ASMP: Like your subjects, you also attended Montana State University (MSU) and you now work there as staff photographer. From your point of view, are today’s students different than they were when you were enrolled? Tell us about the characteristics of this academic community.

KG: It’s been quite a round trip to come back to MSU. Yes, I’ve seen significant changes since I was a student 20 years ago. Keep in mind, when I studied here, everything was film-based and DOS was still the operating system for PCs. We had an entire semester class on zone system and densitometry. I studied under a particular professor, Rudi Dietrich, who had a very orthodox, Austrian photography education. He also taught that way. We learned every aspect of every fundamental. He had worked for years as a photographer, so he backed his teachings up with a lot of practical experience. My classmates and I would spend hours in the labs and studios practicing, and we’d really compete and challenge each other.

I feel there’s a sense of entitlement with today’s photo students. Students want fame and success instantly and don’t seem as interested in working their way up from the bottom like many of us did. I used to do all the grunt assignments at newspapers that the staffers didn’t want just so I could get my foot in the door. By contrast, I’ve had interns refuse to do assignments when working with me because they thought it was beneath them. I also believe students spend too much time trying to replicate current fads in photography like HDR or moody photos of empty parking lots, and they don’t work enough on their own vision.

ASMP: What kind of responsibilities and schedule does your staff position at Montana State entail? Given these demands, how do you make time to pursue work for other clients?

KG: I wish I had more time for freelance work. I’m pretty selective and only work for magazines now when I freelance. My job often keeps me busy seven days a week. I compare university photography to working for a small town newspaper. Actually, our university has a student/staff population of nearly twenty thousand, so it’s even larger than some newspapers where I’ve worked. My role is primarily to service our five staff reporters as they prepare stories for local, regional and national media outlets. There’s a lot of notable research on our campus, so I spend a lot of time in labs and in the field shooting stories about subjects from paleontology to avalanche research. These days I spend about 40 percent of my time doing video production. It’s broadcast-style news video on the same topics I photograph. I’ll package these videos and send them to the television stations, and we also run them on our YouTube channel. I frequently act as a stringer for large publications if they do a story about our research, either shooting original art for them or pulling from our library.

ASMP: The image on your homepage shows a big, open night sky. Why did you choose this image to represent you? What is your favorite subject matter to shoot?

KG: That photo is the Big Dipper rising over Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park. I simply chose that photo because it’s a recent image that I really like. Those are tough photos to shoot, so it made me happy. I also felt it summarized the concept that I love photographing everything. The sky is the limit!

ASMP: You started as a still photographer about twenty years ago. When did you begin incorporating multimedia into your business? When you first began experimenting with this what did you find most challenging about the audio and video components?

KG: I had some motion picture classes in college, and while at newspapers, I worked alongside the TV reporters, so I was familiar with motion workflow. I began doing multimedia, stills with audio, about five years ago, and then we moved into video. Now we choose multimedia versus video based on the story we’re telling. I think they are two unique storytelling tools because video gives you all the information, and slideshows let you linger on an image and take it in. The challenge was and is doing good interviews and getting quality audio.

ASMP: When working on video projects, do you work alone or do you have any assistance, either in shooting, postproduction or editing? Do you find that the volume of your video work has expanded substantially in relation to the stills you shoot?

KG: I generally produce news videos by myself. I often complete the project in a couple of hours from filming to the finished production. When we do longer-form videos or projects for the marketing department, I will handle the filming and audio while one of our reporter’s acts as producer/interviewer. She has successfully made the transition from print reporter to producer, and I feel the projects are always better when she is part of the team.

ASMP: What role you feel video work will play in your future? Please share your thoughts on the future of visual media in its widest sense as well as the relationships between various components.

KG: I think video, or at least multimedia, will play an increasing role in all of our futures. People get their content in so many digital forms beyond print publications these days that we have to adapt or seek other employment. For my part, I believe video is another great tool for telling stories. When I worked for newspapers, I remember getting a photo essay once a year if I was lucky. Now I do them every week, either as multimedia or video.

ASMP: In 2009, you launched a documentary project, The Stones Have Memories, about the history of the Cold War in Berlin. What interests you about the Cold War? What was your aim in creating this series?

KG: I grew up during the Cold War and was influenced not only by the frequent reporting about missiles, defections and the Berlin Wall but also by popular movies and television programs. More specifically, I was influenced by my father’s stories about the construction of the Wall while he served in the U.S. Army in Europe. During my senior year of high school, I watched live television of when the Wall came down, and it had a profound impact on me. Years later, I read a story about how much of that history was no longer being taught, even in Berlin, so I felt compelled to explore the architecture and landmarks that were significant during the Cold War. Much of it has been torn down, paved over or rebuilt. It took a lot of research and collaboration with people in Berlin to develop a shot list.

ASMP: Although the images can also be viewed on your main Web site, The Stones Have Memories has its own Web site, with a much different layout, style, font and so on. Why did you decide to create a distinct Web site for this project?

KG: I created a travelling gallery exhibit, so I felt the project really needed its own Web site and domain name. I also wanted a venue for people who are more interested in the subject matter than my photography or me.

ASMP: The Stones Have Memories was exhibited in Berlin, as well as in New York and Montana. How was the series received in Berlin? Was the response different in Berlin from the United States? Please discuss the various responses to this work.

KG: The response I’ve had in the U.S. has been of people wanting to tell me about their own Cold War stories or connections to Berlin. I love that. It’s much more of a compliment to me than people just admiring my photos. The Germans who have seen the project seem to express a bit of nostalgia. Life moves on, and we tend to forget things unless someone reminds us. I met a wonderful woman through this project. She came to the exhibit in Montana and shared her story of defection from East Germany. She has since been working on a memoir of her life in Germany under the rule of Hitler and the Soviet Union. We have tea together, and she fascinates me with her stories.

ASMP: How do you know when a personal project is complete? Are there any new personal projects that you’re currently working on?

KG: I could easily spend more time on the Berlin project. I’d love to publish it as a book, but I’m struggling to find a publisher willing to take on such a niche subject.

ASMP: You are represented by 7444 Gallery in Saranac Lake, New York. How did you first connect with this gallery, some 2,000 miles from your home base? Does this gallery represent work that you’ve done besides The Stones Have Memories series? Do you have any upcoming exhibitions planned there, or anywhere else?

KG: The owner of the gallery, Todd Smith, studied architecture at MSU and we have a mutual friend. So far, we’ve only collaborated on the Stones project, but Todd has been an enormous help with that. He helped design the exhibit and assisted with all the media relations. The first exhibit was on the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, so we got a lot of attention. The exhibit is now in the permanent collection of the Cold War Museum in Vint Hill, Virginia, founded by Gary Powers, Jr, the son of the U2 spy plane pilot.

ASMP: The first photo you made was at age six. Do you remember the subject matter and why you were interested in making a photograph at that young age? Was a print made of this image?

KG: The first photo I remember making at age six was of Old Faithful in Yellowstone. I used my mother’s Brownie Hawk Eye camera. I often reflect on how my interest in photography started in Yellowstone, and now all these years later I spend a lot of time in Yellowstone documenting research and its beauty.

ASMP: Did you grow up in Montana? On balance, is living in Montana today a benefit or a hindrance to your photography career? Do you get much assignment work from companies out of the area seeking to work with a local photographer? What, if anything, do you do to compete with photographers from larger in metropolitan areas?

KG: I was born and raised in Montana, and I’m actually a fourth-generation Montanan. I think it’s difficult for anyone working as a photographer in a rural state because editorial work is so New York-centric. I’m fortunate that I have a busy staff position that’s rewarding. I find it frustrating when I see assignments shot in Montana by photographers who seem unprepared for assignments in this state. I cite as an example a time when a major newspaper chose to send a photographer to shoot a story about our researchers in Yellowstone. They asked me to be his guide. The result was that I carried his pack in addition to my own for 20 miles in the backcountry and cooked his meals for him because he couldn’t run a camp stove. In the end he was too tired to work and made only a few photos. The story never ran.

ASMP: In 2011, you started a blog. Why did you decide blogging was important? What do you hope to convey with your blog posts?

KG: I started a blog because everybody else was blogging and it seemed like the thing to do. I realize now that it doesn’t suit me. Good bloggers update frequently and I just don’t have the time, so I’ve moved away from blogging. I do have a Facebook page where I’ll occasionally post stories on which I’m working.

ASMP: You also have a PhotoShelter site, where your work is available for download and licensing. Are any of your images available for licensing through traditional stock distributors? How much traffic does your PhotoShelter site get, and how many sales do you make as a result?

KG: I’ve had my PhotoShelter site for nearly two years, and sales have been dismal. I’m sure it’s like blogging. You have to have time to promote it. I also think there is simply a lot of stock photography on the market. I find it much easier to promote myself as an assignment photographer. I use PhotoShelter as a means to send photos to clients and have been very happy with that functionality. I’ve considered traditional stock in the past, but the rates are so low and the image requests so specific that I don’t see how this could be a good business decision for me.

ASMP: Do you utilize any other Web portals or forms of social media to connect with others and market your services? If so, do you have an established Web/social media strategy? Given your remote location, do you find these things to be effective in giving your business and services a greater presence?

KG: I’m becoming more active on LinkedIn and find that’s a good way to meet the people who would buy my services. I’ve explored Twitter as a way to follow editors just to see what interests them. The Internet is a great way for buyers and photographers to connect from a distance. I get quite a few referrals through ASMP’s Find a Photographer Web site, and people find me through Internet searches. I believe the Web is the most valuable marketing tool for photographers these days.