Phoebe Kiely was 14 years old when she first picked up a camera. It was terrible, though: a four megapixel digital device from Aldi. But despite the poor quality, Kiely became obsessed with taking pictures. One of the earliest photographs she remembers was of her best friend, Amanda, captured in the garden of Kiely’s family home in Ingoldsby, Lincolnshire. “It’s a picture of her on a small trampoline,” she says. “I’m above her and she’s curled up, looking up at me.”
The Aldi camera was replaced with a film camera when Kiely hit her late teens and the “buzz” of shooting, developing and seeing the final results of her pictures became stronger. It was what helped her get through three years of working in retail after finishing her A-levels in 2009. “I remember running into town during my 15-minute morning break to drop my film off,” she says. “I would walk back during my lunch hour to pick up the pictures. It was the most exciting part of the day.”
Kiely graduated in 2015 with a first-class honours degree in photography from Manchester Metropolitan University and the same year met Open Eye Gallery curator Thomas Dukes, who she invited to her graduation portfolio show. After seeing her work, he asked her to put on an exhibition at the gallery the following year.
It was then that she began working on her series, They were my landscape. One of her photographs from the project – of a stranger named John – was among two Kiely had featured in BJP’s 2016 edition of Portrait of Britain. She says she “had a feeling” about the person walking beside her along a street in Salford, and turned round to see a man with “the most incredible face”, so she stopped and took his photo.
Her intuition on that day is something that has stayed with her practice and plays a central role in guiding her work. “I have this feeling when I see a person or an object or any kind of scene,” Kiely explains. “If I ignore it, I feel like I’m doing myself an injustice. If I walk away and don’t take a picture, I feel guilty.”
Kiely realised just how much of a role this emotion plays in her work when, earlier this year, her dad told her he had blood cancer. “My reaction to him telling me was to shoot a film of him in that moment,” she says. “I remember the sun shone so bright in the front room of my parents’ house. There was a bowl next to him, like a big goldfish bowl.
“I took his picture, he was sitting on a chair with the light shining on him with a bowl next to him. That’s what made me realise I take pictures of my emotional reaction to everything. That’s what keeps me going; it helps me deal with the world.”
Last year, Kiely met with publisher Michael Mack, with whom she has been working to publish her monograph of the project, out this month, in time for Photo London. Of her work, Mack says, “The subjects of many of Phoebe Kiely’s photographs are beyond most people’s peripheral vision and with her chiaroscuro palette and skilful manipulation of the medium’s capacity for abstraction, she builds a world simultaneously stark and intimate. It is rare to encounter such a powerful and singular vision in a young artist.”
Her next ambition is to get a darkroom of her own. “There was only one public darkroom in Manchester, which closed in March,” she says. “I want a space where I can work independently. I find it hard printing in public spaces when the work is so intimate.”
phoebekiely.com This article is taken from BJP’s 2018 Ones to Watch issue www.thebjpshop.com Phoebe Kiely is one of five Ones to Watch whose work BJP will be exhibiting this year at Peckham 24, which takes place over the Photo London weekend from 18-20 May www.1854.photography/2018/05/bjp-peckham24/
They were my landscape by Phoebe Kiely is published by MACK, priced £27 www.mackbooks.co.uk MACK is at Photo London 17-20 May, and Phoebe Kiely will be singing copies of her book at the MACK stand there at 4pm on 19 May https://photolondon.org/. MACK will also be at Offprint, Tate Modern 18-20 May, and Phoebe Kiely will be signing copies of her book there at 2pm on 19 May https://offprint.org/