“You don’t need to read into it”: Tom Keelan on distorting, editing and representing his idols

The New York-based photographer has long been nurturing this signature kaleidoscopic style, photographing the likes of TNGHT, Danny Brown, 21 Savage and Playboi Carti.

Date
19 May 2021
Reading Time
4 minute read

After a few years in the industry, you’d assume that a creative’s style would evolve over time. For Tom Keelan, a photographer raised in Vermont and currently based in New York, his style of working has remained pretty much stagnant – but all for the right reasons. Ever since he started dabbling in photography at school, he was completely transfixed on the editing process, slicing up his negatives and printing collages onto the photo paper in the process. “As artists, or just people in general, we like to think we change drastically over a decade,” he tells It’s Nice That. “When I look back, I realise I’m basically just doing the same shit, but now the work is just more skilful and steeped in my personality.”

Flick through Tom’s portfolio and you’ll notice how each and every picture has a certain pizazz, that being a kaleidoscopic edit where subjects are cut, pasted, repeated and extended. Usually his subjects are musicians, and Tom has gone on to photograph the likes of TNGHT, Danny Brown, BlocBoy JB, Sheck Wes, 21 Savage and Playboi Carti. Other times it can be athletes like footballer Romeo Okwara, or a spooky editorial for GQ. He’s got vast experience working in his field, and sees two realms of music and photography as that which works in unison with one another. “Both music and photography have been huge parts of my life for a long time,” he adds, “and at one point, I was even looking at conservatories as a jazz drummer. Conveniently, photography and music often come together in my work.”

Tom doesn’t classify himself as a typical photographer, especially when it comes to observing the world around him and capturing it with his lens. “I think I have a pretty average ‘eye’ for shooting most of the time,” he says, stating how he much prefers to work in the editing room. “I’m always so impressed by photographers who can just walk around a city, find mundane things laying around, and transform them into these incredible sculptural objects.” Thus, his reasoning for working in such a heavily edited manner stems largely from his “frustration” with not being able to capture his surroundings in the way he’d planned in his head. “I use editing to get images closer to what our subjective interpretation of the world is. In that vein, portraits can often feel too clinical to me,” he continues. “We don’t experience people in 2D or as a flat image, and an interaction is much more dynamic than that. We experience their movement, their expression and personality. It’s multifaceted and I try to communicate that through the editing of my photos.”

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Tom Keelan: Duke Basketball for GQ (Copyright © Tom Keelan, 2019)

This is very much the case throughout his works, where intense colour and high contrast scenes bounce off the digitally crafted compositions of people, movements, gestures and activities. Arms and legs fly everywhere in Tom’s portfolio, and faces tend to be adorned a few extra noses or two. To achieve such lucid creations, it takes hours of meticulous experimentation and an undeniable flair for originality. It’s never as simple as copying and pasting a previous image, or turning up the exposure because each and every photo has its own language and unique treatment. But no matter how heavy the edit, Tom will always strive to represent his subjects with honesty, respect and credibility.

“A large part of the job is trying to figure out how to represent [my subjects] in a way that doesn’t distract from who they are,” he says, noting how he’s fortunate to have worked with many musicians, and thus many of his idols. When on set, it can take a strong persona to refrain from turning into a super fan, and therefore keep a level of professionalism. For Tom, he naturally wants the talent to like him, but in the end he sees it as his job to produce a photo that the artist and client are happy with. “So that’s going to have priority,” he notes. “Working with an artist that you have a huge amount of respect for is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it’s easier because you’re a fan, so you sort of feel like you know them. But on the other hand, you’re also like, ‘holy shit, you’re fucking Playboi Carti, you were my top Spotify artist last year!’ Also, everyone is different, you really don’t know what someone will or won’t respond to when going into a shoot.”

To combat these doubts, Tom remains neutral with how he approaches a subject. This mindset has continued to work in his favour, having recently completed one of his favourite pieces for Romeo Okwara, a slightly different approach to his usually warping and repetitive pieces made beforehand. Then there’s the Quarantine Doll House, a “successful" piece due to his trippy depiction of isolation over lockdown. “While of course it’s super stylised because I Photoshopped ourselves into the dollhouse, it’s still depicting real scenes, you don’t need to read into it to understand what’s happening.” This picture, like everything else, cements the photographer as one who treads the line between fiction and reality with skill and precision, and we can’t get enough of it.

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Tom Keelan: 21 Savage for Interview Mag (Copyright © Tom Keelan, 2018)

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Tom Keelan: Danny Brown for Warp Records (Copyright © Tom Keelan, 2019)

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Tom Keelan: 100 gecs for GQ (Copyright © Tom Keelan, 2020)

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Tom Keelan: Jaylen Brown for GQ (Copyright © Tom Keelan, 2020)

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Tom Keelan: Playboi Carti for Dazed (Copyright © Tom Keelan, 2018)

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Tom Keelan: Playboi Carti for Dazed (Copyright © Tom Keelan, 2018)

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Tom Keelan: Playboi Carti for Dazed (Copyright © Tom Keelan, 2018)

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Tom Keelan: Quarantine Doll House for The New York Times (Copyright © Tom Keelan, 2020)

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Tom Keelan: Sheck Wes for The Fader (Copyright © Tom Keelan, 2018)

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Tom Keelan: TFW J. Albert (Copyright © Tom Keelan, 2018)

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Tom Keelan: Tom's Skeleton (Copyright © Tom Keelan, 2014)

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Tom Keelan: Romeo Okwara for GQ (Copyright © Tom Keelan, 2019)

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About the Author

Ayla Angelos

Ayla was an editorial assistant back in June 2017 and has continued to work with us on a freelance basis. She has spent the last seven years as a journalist, and covers a range of topics including photography, art and graphic design. Feel free to contact Ayla with any stories or new creative projects.

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