Forest Kelley (b. 1980) is an Assistant Professor of Photography at the University of Kentucky. He received his MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design.
Kelley’s work considers the friction between subjectivity and culture—how personal psychology lives within a social ecology. His work aims to develop agency where it has been eroded, whether it is in depicting the early history of AIDS in rural New England communities or in exploring the lack of social accountability within new virtual labor markets. His practice is ultimately a social one: It is predicated on cultivating relationships, collecting personal histories, and investigating lived experiences.
His work has shown internationally at galleries including 1708 Gallery (Richmond, VA), the Athens Institute for Contemporary Art (Athens, GA), Clamp Art (NYC), and SF Camerawork (San Francisco). Kelley was recognized with the 2020 Imagemaker Award by the Society for Photographic Education and an award for Best Music Score in 2018 from the International Documentary Association for his work on the Academy Award-nominated film Hale County This Morning, This Evening.
Michael imagines the history of gay men living in rural western Massachusetts in the era between the Stonewall Uprising in 1969 and the death of Rock Hudson by AIDS in 1985. Specifically, Forest Kelley traces the experiences of his uncle, an artist whose adult life was bookended by these landmark events in LGBTQ history. Michael was found dead on June 14, 1985, shortly after the first test for HIV antibody was licensed by the Food and Drug Administration.
In this work, Kelley reenacts known events and memories, reconstructs shared histories, and speculates on experiences Michael might have had. The project incorporates and interprets ephemera—the things Michael left behind when he died—and his own 8mm filmstrips. Using Michael’s possessions and artwork allows Kelley to materialize him, and let him speak for himself, grounding his imagined images. Part documentary, this work seeks answers, but its preoccupation is with the unknowable, with visualizing the hopes and fears that continue to resonate within his family and community.
LGBTQ histories are often forgotten, if not actively erased, and rural communities are frequently the last to redress them. Kelley’s work reclaims one of those stories, helping to frame an otherwise outcast history while working to support issues of acceptance and understanding more broadly in the present. Quieted and forgotten histories become exiled truths. This work is an attempt to resurrect one of those stories.