It was a cold January evening in Wauwatosa, an upwardly trending suburb of Milwaukee. New bars and restaurants are appearing up and down North Avenue. The area is experiencing a development renaissance – and real estate values are starting to hit “you better have $300,000 cash in your wallet” status. The street is busy with traffic, for a frigid Wednesday night.
When photographer Kelly Bolter said she would meet me in Wauwatosa, I threw out the names via chat of a few of these newer establishments. The chat went quiet for a second when I heard the familiar sound of a response. I looked down at the chat window and there it was:
I have to admit (sadly) I had never been to Walter’s – commonly known as Walter’s on North. It’s a bar that feels like it has been there forever. All the new developments have appeared around Walter’s – it’s the immovable classic Milwaukee tavern. Would the regulars accept me?
Kelly’s choice of Walter’s was important because it opened the window ever so slightly as to what she was all about. Our conversation turned to many of these things that she loves -- antiquing, vintage clothing, Turner Classic Movies – and her life as a librarian, which is kind of the most retro job you could ever have (she has her masters in library science from UW-Milwaukee).
It turns out both of us are nerds, but I digress.
It was the visual styles of many of those films on TCM that would leave an impression and begin to inform Kelly’s photographic style. “I recreate what I see – it’s a stylized reality,” she says, and from the minute I encountered her photography it is that – what she sees – which separates her work. She has a knack for capturing moments, looking beyond her subject – the performer – and seeing their entire environment, the lighting, the band interactions, and their pure, raw emotion.
“I love being around musicians,” she says, remembering how, after a bad breakup she immersed herself and her camera in Milwaukee’s local music scene, hanging out, getting to know the bands and building an impressive portfolio. I’m imagining that her photos are impeccably sorted, in a way only a librarian would do.
I also believe that what makes a great creative person is an intellectual curiosity, always seeking ways to improve, get better, learn and be open to advice. And if you think about it, how can you be a librarian and not be intellectually curious?
Meanwhile back at Walter’s, she ordered the Schlitz and I had a High Life.
Kelly remembers speaking to a photographer friend who informed her that her camera had the ability to do multiple exposures – something she had not thought to explore. It turned out to be a happy accident. A massive creative door opened, and a signature style emerged. Her multiple exposures – all created in camera and not photo-shopped are tremendous, bringing to life the essence of performance; each pic is a mini-movie in itself.
For some of the musicians Kelly has captured, her work has left an indelible mark. Kelly photographed Milwaukee singer-songwriter Abby Jeanne, and upon seeing one of Kelly’s multiple exposure shots, Abby said:
“This looks like I feel when I’m singing.”
It’s quite possibly the highest compliment a photographer can get.