Photos of Long Beach Life On Display at Common Gallery

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Drew Kelley knows firsthand that even in community-driven Long Beach, taking unstaged photos of street life is no easy task. 

In the last six years of wandering his Central Long Beach neighborhood looking for scenes of contemporary urban life--often with a vintage 35mm Olympus in hand--his camera lens has been met with everything from confusion to concern (some kids he was snapping as they played soccer at dusty Chittick Field even asked if he was trying to hack their Myspace). 

But Kelley has nothing to hide. He calms their fears, reassuring them he's just a local photographer with no alterior motives. Sometimes, he returns to the scene another day with prints for his subjects. It's extra effort that's well worth it for Kelley, whose breathtaking black-and-white documentary photos of Long Beach life will be on display at Common Gallery starting Saturday. 

"I love the challenge of taking a photo of someone who is a stranger. It's not easy...I had to earn these shots," he says. "My pet peeve is photographers that become well-known for taking photos of their friends."

Inspired by the Historical Society of Long Beach and its extensive collection of vintage photographs from the city's early 20th-century heydey, Kelley tries to capture moments that define modern Long Beach--a city that though in his blood, he has only lived in since 2007. Raised in Chino Hills by Long Beach-bred parents, Kelley grew up visiting extended family in the city and hearing tales about a Long Beach he never really had the opportunity to know. 

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After graduating from Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara with a degree in photojournalism, Kelley--a lifelong skateboarder--moved to Long Beach while interning at the Orange County Register. Surrounded by the technical aspects of his craft on a daily basis, he felt even more compelled to use his spare time to return to photography as an artform. It was then that he decided to start taking the photos that for the next month will be presented as Long Beach Life: Documentary Photography, the 26 year-old's first solo show. 

"Part of the motivation was that I've heard so many stories about Long Beach because my family is from here, but I have no personal connection since I didn't grow up here," he says. "I guess this was my way of getting to know the city."

Kelley's exhibition will include nearly 30 digital and film photographs printed in varying sizes on hot-pressed archival cotton paper, with everything from sidewalk haircuts to machete-weilding Cambodian chefs to men in tutus showing Long Beach in all its eclectic, ethnic glory. A skateboard company even made limited-edition t-shirts featuring one of the featured photos. 

Still, Kelley feels like his work is not done. There is so much more to see and more unspoken moments to document in the name of preserving the images of this generation so that they can be remembered by the next. 

"What about us?" he says, noting that he would love to see his images included in the Historical Society's archives one day. "When poeple forty years from now look back on photos from Long Beach in 2013, what will they see? Where are our photos?"

Long Beach Life: Documentary Photography by Drew A. Kelley will be on display from March 9 through March 30 at Common Gallery, 350 E. 3rd St. 

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