Keli Reule Brown is so cool! She describes herself as a natural rolling stone. She went to school in London, played in a rock and roll band in San Francisco. She didn’t let a boring thing like a career stop her. Her career is anything but boring. She created her job as a destination wedding photographer to suit her lifestyle. She’s living the dream! She lives in Savannah, Georgia, but frequently. gets to jet off to exotic places like Cuba and Cambodia.
I sat down with Keli between trips [over the phone] for a great chat.
So you own your own business, Ave Nocturna.
KB: Ave Nocturna It means ‘night owl” in spanish.
Oh, I love it! How did you come up with that?
KB: I have a reputation for keeping late hours and friend of mine in London who helped me kind of craft my original site came up with it and we both just thought it was funny. So I just kept it and it’s what I’ve done ever since.
So tell me the story, how did it all begin?
KB: Well, basically, I went to art school…and I’ve been an artist my whole life, for better or worse…[laugher]
It’s for better, for sure…
KB: …and basically known that instinctively, even when I was really little. So that’s always kind of been my life. But I went to art school…it was a sort of proper art school, whatever that means. And I painted and did photography when I was an undergraduate. Painting was my major, photo was my minor. Throughout that, painting was my life focus. I was also in a rock and roll band in San Francisco for about ten years…
Cool! What did you play? Do you sing?
KB: I sang and played guitar. I mean, I’ve been in a lot of bands. But I was in this one in particular for a long time. So during that season of my life, i was basically playing music and painting and having art shows. Doing all the things that come with bands…and photography was just a low boiling thing. Something that informed the paintings. I worked for my own photographs. Or I would occasionally do shoot stuff. But it was not anything that I was in pursuit of, really. Certainly not in a commercial way, like I do now. Not even close to being similar to that. It was just something that the photography was something that I had the skills to do, and it served the work as a base for the painting, in terms of content. I never painted on photographs or anything like that.
KB: it just served as a concept. And as I was developing as a painter and an artist … That’s kind of where it came out of. So I painted for all those years. I played music. My band broke up and I moved to London to do my MFA. I did my BFA in San Francisco, and lived there for a long time…ten years…and then moved to London to do my MFA there. And when I finished my MFA, I was still living in London and I needed a hustle, to be totally frank with you…
-Believe me, I understand.
KB: So in San Francisco, I was a bartender for many years and if I needed support, that’s what I did. But it doesn’t function the same in the UK. Basically I started doing the type of commercial work that I do…kind of in secret, under a different name. Not that I was even discussing or letting people know I was doing it. I was just doing it to help support myself…and support the other work. You know, basically it was my grind….
-I love it!
KB: …and then it turned into this whole other thing. So basically it started taking off in ways I didn’t totally anticipate and then just became this totally different thing. I returned to the states, and because I wasn’t living in a big town, I needed to kind of grow it. So the photography, really is much more of a commercial pursuit. And still, my paintings are still very much informed by the photographs I take…there is a difference, in terms of the practice. I mean I would basically say that photography is more of an intersection of intellectual practice… The painting and music are more visceral than intellectual and there’s a performative aspect. They do sort of function somewhat separately in some ways. But, I mean, logistically in terms of who I am…I make stuff…and there’s an ebb and flow between one to the other.
You’ve led the coolest life! That sounds awesome!
KB- Laughs. You’re very nice, Brooke. It hasn’t always felt like that. …It’s not an easy road. But there’s beauty to it, for sure. And I don’t know how to be any other way.
Right…Right. Well, what are some of the “not easy” parts?
KB: Well being an artist and living this way, is an interesting life. I’ll say it like this, I’m surrounded by kind of a floatable crew. They’re my people. Painters, musicians, photographers, poets, designers. Just edge-walkers generally. You know, all, like myself living lives where being committed to making your work braves an inordinate amount of unusual and simultaneously ordinary challenges.
You know, just, how are you going to keep yourself alive? You know? And navigate all the realities of logistical life? And your relationships. Being true and committed to what you’re making. I think a lot of that is mysterious. I don’t think there’s hard lines. I don’t think there’s clear answers. I think if there were clear answers, we’d know them by now. But I don’t think there are. I think it takes a lot of willingness to sort of step into the fray a little bit. You’re living in a circumstance where you’re not fully in one role and not fully in another, if that makes sense.
Does that answer your question?
Yeah, yeah. And I don’t know you, honestly, so I don’t know that you are this way, but the typical artist, when I think of an artist is just kind of like, I do it for the art’s sake and that sort of thing. But how does that translate to running a business and dealing with the meetings and dealing with the phone calls and having the set schedule and not just the free time to paint. You know what I mean? Am I asking it right?
KB: Yeah, totally. I understand that. So yeah, I’ll tell you; doing business is a very specific thing and loving the business and doing the commercial side on the photography work is definitely a very different skill. But I still work for myself. So some of the advantages are that you are in control of your own schedule in some capacity.
KB: The downside is it’s very high risk. I mean, if I’m a hunter, I eat what I kill. If I don’t, I don’t eat. That’s how it works. Right?
KB: So there’s no punching a clock and getting paid every other Thursday. And there’s nobody here to tell you to make the work. Even running my business on the photography side. That is still me generating the work from within. There’s no external force that forces the work to happen. Its coming from an internal place. But that is a very specific skill and I think it’s like you get a…it’s like jazz, man…do you listen to jazz? Do you like music at all. It’s like jazz. Jazz doesn’t have a net. And so some of the beauty of living life this way, like music, the sonic quality of it: is amazing. But then, its like: well there’s no net.
KB: There’s no net. So you have to kind of be okay with that. A lot of people get in the circumstances where it’s harder than they thought.
KB: But I’m really inspired by…my primary source of inspiration is my friends. You know? And people who are are living that life; trying to do what they want; and are trying to navigate some of the more mysterious elements of what that looks like. But I’m starting to think that that’s changing pretty dramatically in terms of in terms of what’s “allowed.” It’s an older system…the machine… that surrounds art. I think a lot of that old way of being an artist is dying off. I think there’s been a seismic shift in the way that that machine works. And I think there’s a lot of people who share that in some capacity. If you learned a system and you know a system and you believe in a system and that very thing is revealed as false, or it is simply just no longer working that’s kind of terrifying.
KB: But I actually think it can be a really exciting time if you can get to a place where you are ostensibly trying to do what you want and walk a road where you are dealing with how are you going to pay for your beer or whatever. You know, or pay your bills…You know, in thinking of those things, the reality is I don’t know if there’s one specific way and I think in some ways that needs to be kind of done away with. This idea that there’s a certain way; there’s a right way to go about doing this. I think that that’s dying. And to be perfectly frank with you, Brooke, doing the type of work that I do: when I first started doing the photography work and I was willing to do commercial work. It was not something I was willing to talk to people about in my other world because those two industries, they do not overlap. But on the other hand, I am surrounded by a lot of amazing, brilliant people who are kind of pushing the boundaries on some of that stuff. So I’m kind of just trusting my instincts and moving forward in the way that’s best for myself and supports my work, you know?
Yeah. So you have a supportive community of colleagues and all of you are on the same wavelength with the business of your respective art?
KB: Yeah. I would say that’s like, that’s a huge scale, in terms of what people are doing. There’s a lot of people I know that are doing commercial work or are doing design work or stuff that would be more in that arena. And then I have some friends who are totally still like grinding it out in a big town, making like really obscure, abstract, obtuse inaccessible, brilliant, conceptual work. So there’s varying degrees of that.
KB: I have some friends who are killing it and making beaucoup bucks doing their own stuff. Then I have many friends who are doing varying degrees of side hustles. And I think, that’s a wide breadth of people and experiences, for sure. They’re all over the map.
Yeah, I would imagine that’s true of anyone. I noticed and was curious, you said you started this as a side hustle, just kind of out of necessity but I noticed that you do weddings and also babies. How did you decide those subjects? Because you could choose any subject for your photography.
KB: Well initially it came from those are the general public.
Those are the big sellers.
KB: Those are your clients. Those are the general public. It’s a side hustle. If you were to shoot advertising stuff, that’s more of a long game. From the time I started doing this, It really came from a place that i really needed to generate cash and I had the skill. I had the ability to do it. So it really initially started from that place…I’m just being honest with you.
But I think I started doing it right at the right time where, for the non-traditional approach to that stuff people are wanting not so cheesy versions of those things. Those are sort of the pallid institutions of cheesiness…
So I think when I started doing it…now it’s very different…there’s lots of people with very similar, aesthetic ethos mindset working in the wedding and lifestyle world who are definitely pushing some boundaries. But when I first started doing it, the reason things kind of took off as quickly as they did is because there was a little bit of a hole in the market, at the time. It was several years ago, now, but there was a hole in the market for less formulaic, kind of saccharine sweet kind of style. People really wanted, were really looking for something that was a little more editorial; you know, more reflective of who they were as people and not being pushed into some kind of box that really wasn’t who they were. You know, people going through normal life things, you know, getting married or…
Yeah, I noticed one of the pictures, the girl is sitting there and she has this great expression on her face…and it’s such a great expression…and everyone has made that expression. I was just wondering how planned or how staged are your pictures?
Well, it depends on what it’s for. The thing about a portrait, if it’s for a specific client and it’s like a brand or a fashion line or something of that nature, those shoots are much more created and much more planned out. But then once I’m there with whoever is sitting in front of me, I have a pretty intuitive way of working. Particularly for some of the lifestyle shots. For someone on their wedding day, a lot of that’s just caught in the moment.
When setting up, I think ideally what you want to do is…you want to create an environment which the expressions make themselves known. If that makes sense.
So I’m not forcing them into the expression, but I certainly am setting myself up for the ability for that expression to be made and for me to capture it. I’m not here to tell people what expression to make and particularly in the context of real life. Real life events like a wedding. I want to be with them in that moment, in whatever’s happening.
But you’re also managing the technical side of it. Basically all you’re doing all the time as a photographer is looking for the light.
…You know, navigating where the light is and its relationship with the subject and creating a scenario where an expression like that can be made and you can capture it. That’s the alchemy of it.
Right. Have you ever had…and this is kind of a silly question…have you ever had a couple that is not happy and just doesn’t have any kind of good expression? That you just can’t really work with?
Like i can’t photograph them or they’re a terrible, difficult person?
Well, I guess both might play into that, but say a couple that just doesn’t have any photographic chemistry; they seem awkward and stiff. I don’t know…
Well, I’ll tell you, Brooke, do you know who Chuck Close is? Ok, well look up Chuck Close, but there’s a famous Chuck Close quote and this is very true is that “inspiration is for amateurs.” I would say the same applies here as well. So sure, I have all different types of people in front of the camera. I mean I shot a wedding a couple of months ago where the bride was a former model…that’ definitely a different particularly type of experience than shooting people who are not models.
And I certainly have couples who have different degrees of…I like to say…it’s not so much about having a chemistry with the camera, or even with each other in a particular way. I’m just looking for whatever the dynamic is. I’m just sort of trying to find that…I’m just exploring where I can find that angle and once I can find that angle then once I find that entry point, that’s what I want to reveal, its who they are and what that dynamic is.
I’ve never had a situation where I’m like, this is lost. Because, honestly, that’s my job and I’m there to find a way.
I think that would make it more interesting, more rewarding once you got it done. I’m not necessarily talking about unattractive people. I’m just talking about people who are really awkward in front of the camera, to have these great photographs of them looking so happy on their wedding day, and just looking at them and being able to say, yeah, I did that.
Yeah. It’s a specific moment that is only going to happen with these two humans in this in this particular context just this one time whether they stay married or not. But it’s like this thing is never going to happen again.
I mean, I kind of shoot things like I’m making art projects about their wedding more than I approach it traditionally, if that makes sense.
Yeah, totally. And I was going to ask you, since you are so classically trained, academically trained, I guess, how much of that do you use…i understand that you need the skills…how much so you use in your everyday work?
Yes, it’s hard to totally pinpoint. You have to think of it, it’s almost like a woven piece, right?
It’s like woven into me. So I”m not sure, it’s not like I have a degree in accounting. I mean I sell you art and I am an artist, so in that context I guess I use it all the time. But in some ways I’m not sure if I can totally pinpoint precisely where I do and where I don’t. Because that is woven into sort of who I am and how I function as an artist. So in a lot of ways it’s probably like, not conscious how I’m doing it. But I think it’s massively informative to the way I make work. So like i said, it’s very unusual the background that I come from to do this type of commercial photography….
Because I travel so much, I primarily shoot destination weddings…that really affords a particularly interesting life perspective on what I’m doing, cause I’m working at very different locations. I’m also inspired by my environment a lot.
Yeah, I saw you were in Cuba…so you get to go to all kinds of great places.
Yes and I’m a little bit spoiled.
I can imagine.
Yeah, so I travel a lot. I think I did 250 thousand miles in the air in the last year. So I travel to all of those places, but it’s kind of necessary for me cause I’m kind of a road dog at heart and I kind of have to keep it moving all the time, you know?
Right, and I guess that was what I was talking about with the school. You strike me as sort of a rebel-not one to follow the rules per se…
[laughs] My dad will love this…
So how do you know when to actually follow the rules, you know, versus break the rules?
Brooke, that’s quite a question, my friend. I don’t know if we’ve got enough time. I think…you know, I beat to my own drum. And I always have and I’d like to protect my ability to do so.
And it’s like I have a particular vibration and I try to stay in that, in whatever is true to me in that moment. I do. And I don’t always think too much about it. In fact, I don’t really think about it at all. I just go forward. I just try to move myself forward. I’ll offer you this, I definitely function in that. I need to be making stuff in order to figure out what I’m making. I’m not somebody who wants to map everything very clearly before I do it. I need to get a little sense of where I’m going to take this thing, but it’s like ultimately, I need to step into it and as it’s unfolding, I can make adjustments or change course or whatever I need to do. But ultimately that’s how I function in my work and my life.
Right. I think that’s a great way to function. I think that’s awesome.
So what’s next for you?
Well, taking a little break, hopefully for a couple of weeks. Heading to Cuba again and then back on the hustle. I’m still sorting out all of what next year will look like logistically in terms of the work. Yeah, man, just more of the same. More photos, more painting, more traveling and right now that’s where things are.
Thank you so much, Keli, for talking to me.
Yeah, it was really great, man.
c. LTAWB 2017
All images used with permission. c. Keli Ruele Brown
You can check out more from Keli Reule Brown at her website.