The photographer capturing unexpected moments of peace in busy cities

Photographer Oli Kellett has spent years photographing subjects at crosswalks around the world. Subjects appear similar to those in historic religious paintings: contemplative, bathed in golden light, often gazing upwards.

Photographer Oli Kellett has spent years photographing subjects at intersections around the world. Subjects appear similar to those in historic religious paintings: contemplative, bathed in golden light, often gazing upwards.Oli KellettCNN — 

British photographer Oli Kellett has taken his camera from New York to Rio de Janeiro, obsessively capturing one everyday aspect of big cities: Crosswalks. In his images, these banal parts of urban infrastructure transform into dramatically lit, cinematic scenes featuring people waiting to cross, suspended in a moment of rare peace amid the typical hustle and bustle that goes along with living in a city of millions.

“I’m interested in the idea of stillness and contemplation,” said Kellett in the London gallery HackelBury Fine Art, where a solo show of his work, “Waiting for a Sign”, has just opened. The large-scale pictures are drawn from his long-running series “Cross Road Blues” — the title a nod to the Robert Johnson song — which captures people at intersections frozen in contemplation, deciding where to go. For Kellett, this becomes a symbol of the bigger life decisions of choosing a direction.

Oli Kellett's show "Waiting For A Sign" has just opened at London's HackelBury Fine Art.

Oli Kellett’s show “Waiting For A Sign” has just opened at London’s HackelBury Fine Art.Oli Kellett

In one photograph, a street cleaner stands alone in a narrow sliver of sunlight, gazing upwards at something out of shot as he begins to cross an unusually empty major road in Boston. In another, a small group of people, all different ages and looking different directions, are caught in the dappled bright light reflected off a building in Chicago, as they choose what to do next.

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Kellett’s exhibition is accompanied by his first monograph, “Cross Road Blues”, presenting a curation of the series from start to finish. It begins in Los Angeles in 2016, where the idea evolved unexpectedly. “I wanted to make some work about the 2016 election,” Kellett explained. He decided to take pictures on Hope Street in Downtown LA, to capture a snapshot of the political climate, with the street choice a reflection on the iconic Shepard Fairey “Hope” poster of Barack Obama.

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One of Kellett's final images from the project, shot in Rio de Janeiro.

One of Kellett’s final images from the project, shot in Rio de Janeiro.Oli Kellett

The idea of creating a politically-infused portrait of a street didn’t manifest in the way Kellett imagined, but he did capture one image that stuck: a woman waiting to cross the road, illuminated by golden sunlight. “I felt like it was this idea of a political crossroads,” Kellett said. But as he took the idea further, capturing more people at crosswalks around the country, he realized: “It’s not about politics, it’s about individuals.”

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Most of the “Cross Road Blues” images are taken in US cities, from Phoenix and Atlanta to Chicago and Seattle. Grid street layouts lent themselves to capturing crosswalk photos, and the architecture of downtowns formed the perfect backdrop — urban, grey, often not immediately identifiable — to focus on the individuals in the picture. “There were some places I went that felt far too romantic,” Kellett said, citing New Orleans as an example; those images didn’t make the cut. “It was almost too beautiful.”

Despite the cinematic quality of his images, Kellett insists not a single photograph was staged.

Despite the cinematic quality of his images, Kellett insists not a single photograph was staged.Oli Kellett

Despite needing a certain generic urban-ness for the settings, the pictures are in no way devoid of beauty. Light plays a crucial role, with dramatic shafts of sunshine — particularly at sunrise, sunset or reflected spectacularly off buildings — illuminating the characters of his images in perfectly composed ways.

In fact, it all looks highly orchestrated, like a film set. But Kellett insists that not a single one is staged. The photographs result from him walking around chosen cities, looking for the right street corner — often a few blocks away from the busiest streets — and waiting until the light is just right, the place is peaceful, and there is someone waiting to cross in a way that feels compelling. “All these pictures rely on chance,” he said.

The series drew to a close in Rio de Janeiro, where Kellett happened to capture a man frozen in an almost John the Baptist-like pose with his finger held aloft towards the sky. “I knew this was the end of the project,” Kellett said.

The series idea sprung from Kellett's desire to capture images which conveyed a sense of the political crossroads in America in 2016.

The series idea sprung from Kellett’s desire to capture images which conveyed a sense of the political crossroads in America in 2016.Oli Kellett

Indeed, a look back across the pictures reveals the subjects to appear like sacred figures might in historic religious paintings: contemplative, bathed in golden https://nutriapel.com light, often gazing upwards. As such, although the photographs are steeped in a contemporary urban landscape, they betray a timeless sense of humanity.

Kellett isn’t sure what’s next now the series has ended, but he seems to be leaving it up to chance: “It’s about walking out the door and not knowing who you’re going to find,” he said. “Or where you’re going to go.”

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