In Focus: Oli Kellett

  • Oli Kellett is a British artist based in Hastings, UK. He graduated from Central St. Martins Graphic Design course in 2005 and worked as an Art Director at London advertising agencies until 2008 before leaving to work as an artist full time. From 2016 to 2020, Kellett travelled across America taking photographs of people caught in quiet moments of contemplation at crossroads which later became the series ‘Cross Road Blues’, a title borrowed from the legendary song by Delta Blues musician Robert Johnson.

  • Oli Kellett, Cross Road Blues (Grand Ave Chicago), 2017
    Oli Kellett, Cross Road Blues (Grand Ave Chicago), 2017
  • HBFA: What inspired the Cross Road Blues series?


    OK: I was in Los Angeles wanting to shoot something about the US election in November 2016. At the time in the UK, there was so much coverage around Donald Trump versus Hillary Clinton. Yet when I arrived in the US, expecting a frenzy, all the Americans wanted to talk about was Brexit so there was a weird thing going on. I spent ten days in downtown LA, focusing on a street called Hope Street. I would just walk up and down all day taking a mixture of portraits, landscapes and other cityscapes. I was hoping it would help me understand something about the big divide in America at the time.


    I had one picture which I thought was successful, a single figure standing alone at a cross road waiting for the lights to change. Being at a crossroads seemed poetic and summed up the feeling I was getting at the time. I began to see America as a country at a crossroads. I thought of the metaphor of people standing, not knowing which direction to take and it made sense as a big idea. That is how it started.


    I had been photographing crowds of people at crossroads in London, but in the UK, when you want to cross the road, you just walk between the cars and people don't wait to cross. In America you must stop at a STOP sign or a 'Don't Walk' sign, and this few seconds of waiting became quite a significant realisation.

  • Oli Kellett, Cross Road Blues (Hope St, LA), 2017
    Oli Kellett, Cross Road Blues (Hope St, LA), 2017
  • HBFA Did you have an idea about what you were looking for when you arrived in the US? 


    OK Well I did, but I quickly realised I was probably looking for something which didn’t exist, or couldn’t be photographed so I started from scratch when I arrived. Originally, I did go to the US with a broader idea to photograph enormous crossroads, as I had been trying to do in London, but I hadn’t appreciated how busy downtown LA was. The amount of traffic meant I could almost never get a clear view of a large group of people.


    HBFA Were you interested in a reflection of American society?


    OK There is a long history of foreigners coming to the US to make photographic work and I guess I was hoping to continue that tradition. Being slightly removed from my normal day to day meant I was hoping to see things more objectively. Perhaps the best thing happened when I realised what I was looking for, a feeling or something, didn’t exist, so I gave up and continued without any preconceived ideas. So the series grew organically. Not really a way I’m used to working. In the past I’ve been quite process driven.


    HBFA How many years did you work on Crossroad Blues?


    OK Just over four years.


    HBFA Why did you stop?


    OK I came to the end of where I thought the pictures could take me. The project had evolved from the idea of America being at a crossroads to focusing on an individual at a crossroads. It was also a reflection of my own life at the time and what direction to take. I’d arrived at the point of saying ‘Ok, now I can move on’.


    HBFA Was your decision to stop tied to a particular event or situation?


    OK I made the decision to finish the series after my final picture in Rio (Av. Almirante Barroso, Rio, Brazil, 2019) of a man pointing directly up at the sky and his partner is looking up. This gesture of the finger pointing up to the sky brings many art historical references to mind, which all question ideas of spirituality and immortality. That photograph felt like a sign and a stepping stone to explore more metaphysical ideas in my work. Having taken this photograph, I felt I had permission to move my work forwards and, in doing so, bringing the Cross Road Blues work to a natural end. It was the picture that tied it all together. I also started to have an unhealthy relationship with trying to outdo the previous pictures taken. At the start it felt exciting to go out and not know what I was looking for. But by the end I was tired of the process, walking another 10 hours to try and outdo the previous pictures from the previous trip.


    HBFA Does Crossroad Blues reflect the zeitgeist of the time?


    OK I haven’t actually thought about this for a while. It started off about America and then it became much more about the individual and the idea that everyone is being pulled in different directions, forever unsure of the correct path to take. So I’d like to think it isn’t about the zeitgeist but is more of a timeless universal condition.

  • Oli Kellett, Cross Road Blues (Alaskan Way Seattle), 2017
    Oli Kellett, Cross Road Blues (Alaskan Way Seattle), 2017
  • HBFA What inspired the choice of cities?


    OK When you’re thinking of using the human condition as a subject matter, I felt it’s important to try to represent and reflect a cross section of America, as well as other cities in other continents. My criteria for the locations were a nondescript urban space, ideally one where I could see from a high vantage point with good light and a high footfall, but not all at once. I’ve been to cities which simply didn’t work as backdrops, like New Orleans. I didn’t have any success there as the brick buildings were too romantic as a backdrop. There were also more mundane decisions which had to be made, such as flight costs, accommodation and time of year.


    HBFA What research did you undertake before travelling to the cities?


    OK I went into Google Maps and visually walked the streets to see if the intersections looked good. There’s only so much you can really see as you cannot judge how many people will be waiting.


    HBFA How did you decide where to stay in the city?


    OK I tried to stay as central as possible as I’m generally getting up before dawn. It was great if I only had to walk five or 10 minutes to a good location, rather than having to walk for an hour or catch a train to get there. I should also say I’m a happy walker. I enjoy walking in cities and would rather walk to get somewhere than take public transport.


    HBFA Will you explain the technical process of making this series?


    OK All these photographs are taken using a tripod with a manual ‘architectural’ camera, with a digital back attached to the back of it. It’s all manual and uses a cable release but it uses a digital back instead of film. Each day I would wake up, check the weather, have something to eat and walk out the door. I was really drawn to the idea of chance that you can walk left or right out the door and it doesn’t matter as you will be walking for 10 hours and will hopefully take a good photograph. I loved that freedom and way of working.


    HBFA How did you know when you found the right image?


    OK Amazingly, it’s one of those intuitive things that you know as soon as you’ve taken it.


    HBFA How important is the influence of painting and cinema on your work?


    OK Some of the work has a cinematic quality. It is all about the individual and I needed to find a way to bring them out from their environment and to focus on them. When you get this beautiful light hitting them, sending the background into more shadow, it creates a moment and makes the individual stand out. If you’re going to go all the way back, you have The Annunciation paintings in the early Renaissance where the light comes through the building and highlights an individual, like an angel. We don’t really get light like that over here in the UK. To somebody living in the UK, the Los Angeles light is romantic. The history of American culture is tied up in a sunset.


    Oli Kellett - Crossroads 

    Film by Will Garthwaite
    Sound Design by Patrick Lee

  • HBFA In your photography, do you use compositional techniques and styles taken from painting?


    OK When I was an Art student in London, for four years, I painted on the street, like busking. I would copy Old Masters onto the pavement below the London Eye or outside St. Paul’s Cathedral. This is before the age of Instagram or anything, thank God! I would say I have a useful knowledge of composition, but it’s not necessarily from painting. It all frequently goes out the window when I feel a photo might be able to come together.

  • HBFA What made you decide to become a photographer, not a painter? 


    OK I think about this a lot. It all goes back to my foundation course at Central St. Martin’s. On the course you do a few weeks in many different art disciplines, I did a few weeks in the fine art department fully convinced at this stage I was ready to become a painter. However, the fine art course wasn’t about painting at the time as it was very conceptual. No one was given enough time, or guidance, to fully form any ideas and see them through to a meaningful resolution. It seemed a long way from painting. I really enjoyed the conceptual approach to making work but I was probably too young to know that.


    I then did a few weeks on the graphic design course and within that the ‘advertising’ route. This course was more ideas-based. We would be given a pad of paper and a pen. We weren’t allowed to use a computer and had to come up with a way of selling a concept. Or a feeling. But importantly, it had to be clean and coherent, back of an envelope concepts.


    I left Art College and worked for four years writing TV scripts, and drawing up adverts at an advertising agency. I had really enjoyed using cameras at art college and the freedom which they gave you. I continued to make work while working. In 2008, I left the advertising agency and decided to focus on longer term work. I began a project called ‘Paradise’ which took me a few years travelling across the UK to all the places called ‘Paradise’ and photographing them. After that I started work on ‘Cross Road Blues’. Ultimately I think I was attracted to the freedom of going out and taking a camera and finding something real, not imagined. I loved the immediacy of the camera which you don’t get with painting. In hindsight, fast forwarding 20 years, I’m not after that idea of things being finished anymore. The exact reason I like photography is the exact reason I’m not interested in it as much at the moment. A bit of a paradox I guess.

  • Old Paradise Street, SE11
    Old Paradise Street, SE11
  • HBFA In Crossroad Blues you capture moments of individual contemplation and silence in urban environments, using light and shadow to create a mood. What is your interest in the psychology of the individual?


    OK I’d like to think that when people are standing at a crossroads, they’re not thinking about what they’re going to have for supper, they’re thinking about these bigger existential questions. I’m sure 99% of them aren’t but I like to believe they are, or it can trigger that response in others. I spend a lot of time walking around thinking about how best to live your life. That’s why I’m interested in the individual as these are universal questions which everybody thinks about. I am trying to shine a light on those moments of decision making. A lot of people I capture are also looking up and I liked the idea that they are looking for guidance as well.


    HBFA What is your interest in the idea of enlightenment, and the idea that we’re all looking for something?


    OK It is not something that ever occurred to me pre-2016 as I was always very dismissive of religion and spirituality. I grew up in a non-religious household and was confused by it all. Then you grow up and you realise how awful many people’s situations are and how lucky and privileged we are. I think I probably tried to question how to live a better life, how to be more content and if I’m looking for contentment in the right places. I think I’d probably just begun to read a bit and one thing led to another. HBFA Cross Road Blues seems to be about the element of chance and having no control over what you encounter. By contrast the Life Drawing and Soap Drawing series seems to be about being in control and knowing what you’re going to do every day. Can you explain this shift?

  • Oli Kellett, Soap Drawing no. 25, 2022/2
    Oli KellettSoap Drawing no. 25, 2022/2
  • OK The Soap Drawing series is completely different in terms of my approach to making work and goes back to how I made work pre Cross Road Blues. I was unsure that going out and trying to ‘find’ photographs was the way I wanted to continue to work. I wanted to try a different approach to find contentment in my practice.


    HBFA Is the shift from observing others to observing yourself? A more introspective approach?


    OK It’s exactly that. I wanted to see if the meditative approach to making work, the daily repetitive ritual, can shape a life, hopefully for the better. With my approach to Cross Road Blues I was trying to get better pictures and create better work. And I think over time, it wore me down a bit. I think I had also lost a bit of faith with the chance element of making work and wanted to get back to a conceptual process driven methodology.


    HBFA Is that when you began the Soap Drawing series?


    OK Yes the Soap Dish series is much more of a personal exploration while the Crossroad Blues work can now be distilled as people looking for some kind of guidance. Guidance can come in all kinds of guises and I think I’d spent so long thinking about these things that perhaps I had found what I was looking for through the Crossroad Blues pictures. I felt like, okay, I can stop now as I have a different approach to life, to living life.


    HBFA Is there a link between the physicality of Crossroads Blues and the inner spirituality of the new work Life Drawing and Soap Dishes?


    OK Yeah, there is. I guess it comes from a response of trying to find some kind of stillness. I used to walk an awful lot during the daytime taking pictures. But ‘not knowing what I was going to find’ which was frustrating me, as I wanted the absolute opposite of that. I wanted to get up in the morning and know all I have to do during this day is complete a soap drawing. It is meditative. Having a task to complete is important for me now. I’ve been making the Soap Drawings since 2019, for four years, or 1380 days in a row. I may have swung too far in the opposite direction Occasionally I find myself desperate for the thrill of the chase of a chance encounter with a camera. Essentially it’s about balance which is a common goal for many people.


    HBFA The new work has a simplicity to it, as if you are paring down the elements, using black and white and working with space. You recently mentioned the work of Ben Nicholson and his influence on your work?


    OK Yes I was interested in the path he took from originally painting an object in a photorealistic way to then moving to pursuing pure abstraction in his work.. I was interested in how he can portray an object in a different light. I found that interesting and inspiring. Peter Dreher, is a German artist in whose body of work I am also interested. He painted the same glass of water on a daily basis for 35 years – perhaps 5000 times and they are all identical. The only thing that changes is the light reflections in the glass. When I heard about Pete Dreher, it was one of those moments. I knew this is what I wanted to be doing.


    HBFA Was this a major moment for you?


    OK Yes it was a life changing moment. I remember exactly where I was and it took me a couple of months just to process what he has done. I asked myself what can I do? I can work from home as I don’t really want to be travelling so much anymore. I don’t really want to be taking pictures anymore. There was a bit of coincidence as we stopped using shower gel at home and started to use a bar of soap. I just thought this is it, this is what I can do.


    HBFA Is there an important theme here about time passing? In Crossroad Blues you dealt with time as a physical characteristic capturing people as they waited and now you are capturing how something diminishes with time.


    OK Yes, it really was. If you add it all up over the whole Crossroad Blues series, I think I spent over 1000 hours of waiting. It is all about the passing of time. What I liked so much when I completed the first soap drawing series was that I was looking at a collection of 35 or more drawings on my wall, going from a sharp, rectangular soap to slowly becoming this tiny piece of soap weathered around the edges. I looked at it and thought, this is a life. There is the beginning and the end. You start young and perfect. You have edges when you’re young - you are kind of spiky and prickly and you have opinions. But as you get older, they get worn down like a stone gets worn down with age. And then it is gone. In the last few days the piece of soap is almost translucent like a piece of skin. The edges are wrinkled and have cracks. And then it’s gone. And then I begin again.


    HBFA Is there a link here with the Buddhist idea of the cycle of life and the beginning and end being one and the same?


    OK Yeah, it’s exactly that.


    HBFA Will you talk about your series ‘Life Drawings’ which explore the form and symbolism of the circle?


    OK The Life Drawing series (2019) focuses on the marks left on the inside of a cup or a bowl by scraping and stirring with cutlery, collected over many years but made in a split second. I wondered if there was a way of lifting these marks from the three dimensional cups and bowls and onto paper. They would make interesting ‘drawings’ alluding to the idea of ‘The eternal in transitory’ as Baudelaire described it in ‘The Painter of Modern Life’. I photographed dozens of cups and bowls, sourced from charity shops and friends. One of the bowls belonged to a friend’s mother, which had been used for over 100 years to make Yorkshire Puddings for Sunday lunch. Each week it was used, the stirring of the batter with a fork, left tiny silvery grey marks on the bowl, almost invisible. But over 100 years they’ve become this perfect ‘drawn’ circle.


    The circle is considered the most universal of all basic shapes. With no beginning or end, its form is associated with The Eternal and the Divine. In Zen Buddhism the hand drawn circle represents Enlightenment and it’s believed the circle can’t be explained, only experienced by one who has achieved emptiness of the mind. This is an idea I still don’t really understand but in which I somehow believe.

  • HBFA How has having a family impacted you as an artist?


    OK I’ve always wanted a studio practice, a nine to five routine. I’ve always worked many of hours. Jim Dine recently said “I work all day and the physical process of doing, is a quest to find the answer”. Without a doubt having children changes your relationship to making work. Having kids was a bit of a catalyst for starting the Crossroads Blues work as I was not able to do any work at my home studio because the children were so young. Only when you have children do you start to think of these bigger issues, that life is fleeting. It’s humbling being reminded how inconsequential you are.


    HBFA Are there other artists and photographers who have had an influence on your work?


    OK Photography offers freedom.. I’ve always admired the photographers who would take these long road trips but I’m more interested in artists like Thomas Struth, Candida Hofer and the Becher’s and the straight methodical way to photograph industrial Europe. They are an enormous inspiration for the Soap Drawings. I also always go back to Sol de Witt. In general I am influenced by people who have an idea and then make it happen like Wang Guangle and Maria Taniguchi who created process-based meditative paintings. I was also inspired by the Dutch Vanitas paintings at the start of the Soap Drawings. They painted skulls and candles and soap bubbles implying that life is fragile. The Gerhard Richter Candle painting was also an influence – the idea of time ticking.


    HBFA Did you do a lot of research on photography and American photographers before you started Crossroad Blues?


    OK I’ve got a ton of books. I think I had quite a good grounding in the history of photography. I used to take books with me on my trips for inspiration. At the start, I was far more interested in the romance of the road trip idea like the work of Alex Soth and Vanessa Winship and those type of narrative-based books. But as the work progressed I realised I was more comfortable exploring a single idea, the crossroads.


    HBFA What impact would you like your work to have on people?


    OK I’d like them to appreciate the silence and stillness that they can occasionally get looking at my pictures and see how that can translate into their own life - slow down, stay away from your phone. Try to think of the bigger picture. These are very grandiose ideas, but you can look at an individual standing at a crossroads and wonder what that person is thinking about. You can easily see yourself in that place.


    HBFA Where do you feel at peace?


    OK I don’t know. I’m still looking for it. I don’t think I ever want to find it. Thank you.



  • Cross Road Blues Publication

    Oli Kellett’s first monograph Cross Road Blues is published in conjuction with a solo exhibition at HackelBury Fine Art, London. Beautifully printed on a natural art paper and bound in gray cloth over board, with a large tipped-in cover plate, this first printing is limited to 1,000 casebound copies.


    Cross Road Blues presents a selection of 33 photographs from UK-based Oli Kellett’s iconic series of the same name. Kellett began the project in 2016 during a visit Los Angeles, during which time the United States was literally at a political crossroads. The series evolved naturally from there, eventually taking on a more universal meaning as Kellett continued his work in other countries including Spain, Japan, Brazil and Mexico.


    The binding context in each of Kellett’s images is their setting at a crossroads – a familiar place and metaphor for the tension we encounter throughout life. “We live in an era of fake news, political polarization and algorithmic echo chambers,” Kellett explains. “Our experience of the world is fractured as we live out multiple identities on and offline. But crossroads are a democratic place; we all have to wait.”


    Kellett’s masterful use of use of natural light and subtle composition lends a cinematic quality to these unstaged scenes. The contrast between the anonymity of urban space and the individuality of  human experience reveals the artist’s deep interest in the human psyche. As the writer and philosopher Nigel Warburton writes in his introductory essay for the book: “The step each person is about to take seems far more momentous than simply crossing a street”.


    An admirer of the great American painter Edward Hopper, who famously reflected American life in silent spaces and melancholic moments, Kellett creates mesmerizing photographs of everyday people waiting at crossroads, providing us with a powerful contemporary metaphor.


    Published by Nazraeli Press.

    Hardcover, 14 x 11.5 inches, 68 pages, 28 four-color plates.

    ISBN: 978-1-59005-591-5



  • Oli Kellett - Press Coverage