Sitting across from Ray Kellman in his living room, I can’t help but feel like I’m in a museum. Collections of books line the shelves, various works of art decorate the walls, scattered photographs cover the grand piano in the corner. It was the kind of room I could spend hours exploring, studying each detail in quiet contemplation. And it was the kind of room that felt more like a collage, pieced together by a lifetime of artistry and ambition.
In his 96 years, Kellman has embodied these characteristics. Born in 1923, he was a self-taught fashion photographer following his years as a pilot in World War II. For 37 years he worked in the industry, with his photography featured in the New York Times, Vogue, Vanity Fair, and more. “It was the most incredible career; I loved it,” Kellman said. “It was quite rewarding in almost every possible sense that you can imagine.”
Kellman knew he wanted to be a fashion photographer since his early teens. He grew up in Brooklyn, where his father was a manufacturer of women’s coats and suits. “We were a very poor family,” Kellman said. Still, he recalls thumbing through his sisters’ fashion magazines when he was 13 years old, and admiring the photos they included. “That’s where I saw really good photography,” Kellman said. “Just fantastic photos.”
When he was 14, Kellman spent his summer working for his father as a shipping clerk. He swept the floor of all the cuttings from the fabrics, wrapped the clothes in boxes, pushed the racks down the streets of the city — down Broadway, Fifth Avenue, 34th Street — and delivered them to department stores around Manhattan. He was paid $10 a week and, after paying a nickel to get to work and a nickel to get back home, he saved $9.50. By the end of the summer, he had saved enough money to buy his first camera, the Rolleicord. “That was how I managed to get started, just by taking pictures,” Kellman said.
A few years later, Kellman was in college when the U.S. joined the Allied forces in World War II, and he decided to become a pilot. “I was 19 years old, and that was the responsibility that got thrust on all of us at that time,” Kellman said. “It was not my temperament to be a flyboy, no way. But I did it anyway.” For two and a half years, he flew B-24 bombers, and was later stationed at the Tyndall Air Force Base in Panama City, Fla. When the war ended and the U.S. Air Force had too many pilots on hand, Kellman, to his surprise, was quickly discharged.
He had married Lillian Strauss only a few months before, and the two of them took the train home to New York. For the first two years of their marriage, they lived with Lillian’s mother, sharing her childhood twin-size bed each night.
When Kellman returned from the war, he quickly got to work looking for a job as a fashion photographer, but with some hardship. “I tried to get a job, and I didn’t have any experience, so nobody would hire me,” he said. “And out of frustration, I said, ‘Well, if nobody will hire me, I’ll just do it myself. I’ll teach myself.’ And that’s exactly what I did.” Kellman went to various modeling agencies, where he would find girls who would model for him in exchange for the pictures he took. Without a studio or any clothing to model, Kellman shot on location on the streets of the city, with the models wearing their own attire.
Following the advice of Richard Avedon, a famous photographer who had already established himself in the industry, Kellman decided to go to specialty stores to ask to borrow more glamorous garments for his models to wear in exchange for the photos and publicity. After showing his portfolio to one ad manager, Kellman was told that he could use their clothing and, if they liked his work, they’d use his photos for an August ad in Vogue in 1946. Kellman jumped on the opportunity, quickly developing the pictures he took in a darkroom he made in his mother-in-law’s laundry room, and carrying them back on the subway. “That was like the keys to the kingdom,” he said.
During his time as a fashion photographer, Kellman tried to capture action, movement, and spontaneity. Often, he would have five shoots each day in his studio. He worked tirelessly to transmit energy and enthusiasm to his models, who always appreciated that he knew when he had the perfect shot. He was precise, saying that if he made a mistake, it would be the last time he ever made it. Early on, Kellman gave up on creating an intentional style for himself, only to find that his models could recognize his photos instantly, telling him, “I’d know your style anywhere.” “Style is obviously one thing, and it’s your personality,” Kellman said. “Who and what you are comes across.”
“He was always into being innovative, and so he developed new techniques that hadn’t really been done yet in the field,” said Lisa Kellman, Ray’s daughter. “He was alway building things in his studio. He once built this whole cave — if you saw the photograph it would look like he was on location somewhere, as if it was Greece, but it was just in his studio. He played a lot with light too; his lighting was very important to him.”
After Kellman retired, he built his house in Chilmark, and decided to dedicate himself to the Martha’s Vineyard community. He was on the board of M.V. Community Services, on the conservation commission for 26 years, and was one of the early founders of the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber Music Society. “It’s been a dream house and a dream life,” Kellman said. “I’ve had a dream life.”
Sitting again in his living room, an incredible accumulation of his artistic endeavors, Kellman shared one final piece of wisdom.
“I’ll tell you what photography did for me,” he said. “The most enriching thing I got from photography was I learned to see. For me, life is richer because I see light, I see shape, I see form, I see texture. It gives you a very deep appreciation for everything around you.”