Profiling Yukon Photographer Mark Kelly

  By Lily Gontard

On photographer Mark Kelly’s online portfolio there is a series of photos of an abandoned building. It might be a mansion or a hotel. The rooms are brightened by dashes of colour, a pink wall, then a blue one, a wooden balustrade that ends with a volute curled like a fiddlehead at the bottom of a flight of stairs. Then there is sand. The building is filled with swells of sand as if the tide of a dry ocean is rising. 

Desert landscape is the polar opposite to the boreal forest Mark sees from his house in Whitehorse, Yukon. Mark was born in Toronto and moved to Calgary as a child, but the influence of the home he chose at twenty-eight is seen throughout his photography: a river delta spreading like the stroke of a wet paintbrush of liquid slate from top to bottom, centre frame; a rosy sunset on the open, endless water of the Arctic coast; fluorescent green of the ephemeral aurora borealis, or the ochre, vermilion and rust of a Yukon autumn.

Mark’s first awareness of photography was through the photos his grandfather Richard (Dick) Sale took. Dick worked for Hillview Farms a fertilizer company with the memorable slogan “Number one in the Number two Business”. Dick would take eight-year-old Mark to where the company mixed the manure on an old farm in Woodstock, Ontario. With his Kodak Instamatic 110 in hand, Mark explored farm.

“I have a lot of photographs of the barns—I found them fascinating—they were abandoned,” he says. “I’ve been taking photos of abandoned stuff since I was a kid.” 

Though Mark had an interest in photography at a young age, it wasn’t a career choice because he felt he couldn’t make a decent living. After spending a few years traveling between high school and post-secondary, when it came time to go to university he chose child and youth care program on a friend’s suggestion. “I thought I was going to be a phys ed teacher,” he says, though he didn’t like the education system. 

Mark became a therapist and continued to take photographs. In 2000 he had his first photography show in a cafeteria-style restaurant in Whitehorse. It was after this show that Mark sold a photograph of John Hatch’s cabin in the old Shipyards district of Whitehorse. John was a well-known photographer and one of the Yukon’s “colourful five percent”. John had passed away that year and his family bought the photograph and displayed it at his funeral. This was a turning point for Kelly: his photographs held meaning for people, and they wanted to buy the photographs.

Mark now makes a living as a therapist and runs a counselling agency, and on the side he operates his photography business. “I do weddings, portraits, stuff that all photographers do to pay the bills.”

He uses photography as a tool in his therapeutic practice. “I’m helping someone get connected to their missing history from residential school,” he says. “The client was taken from the land and never got to experience that in formative years. We’re taking historical photos and looking at what the family did on the land while the client was at residential school.”

Collaborations make up a lot of Kelly’s current projects. He’s documenting the vanishing roadhouse culture along the Alaska Highway with writer Lily Gontard—the pair are looking at publishing a book of their work in spring 2017. Another venture Mark is embarking on is a series of photography workshops in the Sossusvlei and Sperrgebiet regions of Namibia, and Namaqualand region of South Africa. These workshops were started by Mark’s friend and mentor Freeman Patterson, but now Mark and another Yukon photographer Robert Postma are taking this project on and they will be offering their first workshops in 2017.

For Mark, photography and his therapeutic practice are deeply linked—he wrote his master’s thesis on photography as a medium for change. His full-time job as a therapist takes him across northern Canada and allows him to photograph places he wouldn’t normally have access to, such as the Beaufort Delta. It’s not just landscape that inspires him though. From 2011 to 2015 Mark provided therapeutic services at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings and gatherings. The people he met and the stories he heard have left him with a dream project. “Traveling coast to coast in the Arctic,” he says, “photographing and collecting the stories of Elders, for no other purpose than I think they should be preserved and kept.”

More of Mark’s work can be seen at his website or on various social media: