Kelly Bondra, rising commercial photographer takes on her dreams

Kelly Bondra

People always say, a picture is worth a thousand words. But, besides words, isn’t it worth so much more than that? Behind the model, behind the clothes, behind the words, there’s someone behind the lens. They are the only person who made that photograph worth anything at all, because without them, it wouldn’t exist.

Kelly Bondra is a 20-year-old photography student at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. Her face is fairy-like, a smattering of freckles spread over her cheek bones and nose. Her fiery-red hair falls in curls that brush her shoulders. She looks dainty, but her personality reflects the opposite.

She walks up to the boxing arena, almost overcome with bags, most of which are filled with camera equipment. She plops them down, straightens up and puts her hands on her hips. The last of the day’s light is streaming through the windows, covering the room in gold.

Someone makes a comment about taking advantage of the natural lighting. Bondra nods and kneels down to pull her camera out. She attaches a lens and then begins to explore the place, looking for the best lighting.

R0010062

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

“I think she has always had a creative side,” says Bondra’s mother, Kathy. She explains that as a child Kelly always loved to draw and color. She enjoyed journaling to keep track of her many ideas and did well on writing assignments.

“I think she has always had a creative side.”

“Kelly was a quiet infant, didn’t like to sleep all that much,” Kathy says. “But what soothed her was music and colored lights.” Bondra’s love of music continues today. She often takes inspiration for her many shoots from music.

“It sounds really cheesy, but I get a lot of my inspiration for different shots from music,” Bondra explains. “Whether it’s a melody or a lyric, sometimes I just get this image that I want to create from that.”

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

One of the models has on a mesh shirt over a little black dress and a pair of Nike sneakers. The boxing ring will serve as the set for a high fashion, boxing shoot. Bondra says she got the idea when she saw the mesh shirt in a store.

This shoot is for Thread magazine, an on-campus, student-run publication. It will premiere in the magazine’s final issue of the academic year. A team of student assistants in Thread help Bondra set up her shots. They move around huge umbrellas and board reflectors to manipulate the natural light, creating the perfect shadows on the model.

Bondra styles models in different poses in different places. One sits in a chair, wrapping her hand in tape, another is placed so she casts a shadow of herself taking up a boxing pose. Some of the assistants suggest other poses and Bondra tries to explain her vision for the shoot.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

As a fashion photographer, she also gets a lot of ideas from clothing.

“Sometimes I’ll see a cute dress or shirt or something and I just think, ‘I have to shoot that!'” Bondra says. “So I end up buying a lot of clothes. That’s how I thought of the shoot Maggie.” She explains that she saw the blue dress hanging in a local boutique and immediately thought of Maggie.

Maggie Heltzel, another student at Ohio University, regularly models for Bondra. She is featured in many shoots and Bondra says she has become a sort of muse as well as a good friend.

“Kelly puts herself into her work. It’s personal. I think that’s why we’ve grown so close while working together,” says Heltzel. “I’ve learned more about her through the creative process than I otherwise would have.

Maggie in her blue dress, photos by Kelly Bondra

After she finds the inspiration for a shoot, Bondra often turns to Pinterest to find photos that resemble shots that she may want to create herself. This leads to more concrete ideas for lighting, styling and even the models she chooses. Next is picking a location. Sometimes, the location is obvious, such as with the high fashion boxing shoot, other times it takes a while to figure it out. Bondra has shot at a mansion, in a parking garage, in a greenhouse, at little ponds and of course in the studio.

A sweater series by Kelly Bondra

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

As the natural light dissipates, Bondra moves on to a few action shots. There’s a practice dummy that someone drags from the corner. The plan is to have one model pose next to it while the other model kicks it.

Over and over the model swings her leg up towards the dummy’s face as Bondra clicks away, snapping a photo during each kick. She adjusts her angle, crouching down, nearly sitting on the floor. She points her lens up and someone counts down. The model throws another kick. The lights flash and the countdown begins again.

The shot still isn’t perfect. The team adjusts the position of the lights and strengthens them. Bondra backs up a bit. Now she is crouched on the floor of the boxing ring, her arms reach though the ropes, camera in hands. Everyone prepares for the next shot. Another countdown starts.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Bondra wasn’t always on the path to becoming a photographer. Initially she was a publication design major. Her love of photography started her junior year of high school in a photography class. She really loved the class and thought more and more about making it a career. At the same time, Bondra was heavily involved in editing her school paper.

She wasn’t really sure about going into photography after high school though. “I graduated in the top 25 percent of my class, so no one really expected me to go into a field like photography,” she explains. Bondra says she didn’t get much outside support aside from that of her parents.

“No one really expected me to go into a field like photography”

“As her parents, we were always encouraging all our children to try different things, and not to give up,” says Kathy. “I was initially surprised when she decided to pursue photography but I believe she was inspired by her art teachers in high school.  As she became more and more interested, I saw how this all fit her personality, it was becoming more than a hobby.”

Much like in high school, after Bondra took her first photography class in college, her interest grew even more. She worked with Gary Kirksey and Larry Hamel-Lambert, two photography professors in the School of Visual Communication to develop her interest. Hamel-Lambert encouraged Bondra to attend a workshop in Cleveland at BurkleHagen, a food photography studio.

“I never had an interest in food photography until I saw their studio,” says Bondra. “It was unbelievable. I really got involved and interested during that workshop, even though I was the youngest one there.”

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

The action eventually moved into the ring. Two models posed in the center of the ring as if they were ready to fight. Bondra turned to the owner of the boxing studio and asked if the models were posed correctly. The owner jumped in the ring and adjusted the poses to reflect a real boxer’s stance.

R0010082

R0010083

R0010079

Bondra decided to trade out gloves so one model was wearing punching pads and the other was wearing practice gloves. She asked the model to actually punch the practice pads. Swing after swing and click after click, Bondra moved around them as they continued with the motion, eventually getting the shot she wanted.

The team decided it was time to move on to a few potential cover photo shots. The models changed outfits again and relaxed into more normal poses.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

As soon as Bondra returned to Athens, she switched her major to commercial photography. She wrote a thank you letter to BurkleHagen for the experience she gained and asked if they offered internships.

“She works really hard, and it shows in her images. Kelly is good at styling, lighting, finding interesting locations and adding a concept to her photographs,” says Hamel-Lambert. “Kelly has been an excellent student and a great role model for younger VisCom [Visual Communication] majors. She attends class regularly and actively participates in classroom camera and lighting demonstrations.” He explains how Bondra is not only involved in her classes, she also participates in student publications like Thread and is a part of the School of Visual Communication’s Ambassador Program.

A few weeks later she was asked to intern at BurkleHagen during the summer of 2016. She accepted and went on to enjoy a summer of photographing food in Cleveland, Ohio.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

After taking a few more images of the models by themselves, the team moved on to shooting images for the cover.

R0010077

R0010073

For this issue of Thread, the editor-in-chief was looking for a cover photo with two people on it. This was the perfect opportunity for Bondra.

The two models posed, one sitting on a bench in front in front of the ring, the other leaning on the ropes behind her. They used a few boxing gloves as props and gave their best competitive faces. Bondra snapped some photo, again crouching on the floor. Everyone in the room was getting excited, this could be the perfect cover photo for this issue.

As soon as Bondra got the perfect shot, they moved on to the final few shots.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

“She was the youngest person to attend, but I only know that because Larry Hamel-Lambert told me. She was not only proficient, but had a good portfolio,” said Andrew Burkle, one of the owners of BurkleHangen Food Photography. “She sent us a thank you card after the event with one of her photos on it, then subsequently asked if we had summer internships available. It was an easy choice for us.”

During Bondra’s internship with BurkleHagen she did everything from taking out the trash, walking her boss’s dog, grabbing lunch for the crew and of course assisting on shoots including one for Burger King.

“Kelly enjoyed and embraced the opportunity to work in a studio everyday. She was often put in positions that were outside of her comfort zone and takes that she had never done before, but she asked the right questions and accomplished,” says Burkle. “She’s smart and she’s self sufficient. Also, on weekends or after work she would stay to work on her own projects. That showed us she was serious about this career.”

“She’s smart and self sufficient.”

He explains that Bondra was very advanced for a photographer her age. Her professor, Hamel-Lambert, agrees, adding, “Although she photographs mainly in a fashion and portrait style, Kelly is also a talented food photographer. She is a much better photographer, at her current age, than I ever was as a student.”

“I really enjoyed my internship at BurkleHagen. I liked learning about food photography, I’m still not sure that’s exactly what I want to do in the future though,” says Bondra.

Some of Kelly Bondra’s food photography

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

As the shoot wrapped up, Bondra wanted to take one more photo of each of the models, separately. She put them towards the back of the ring, and lit only that area. Another member of the team pulled out a spray bottle. They sprayed the models so it looked like they were sweating.

Each model posed with the boxing gloves up at their face. Bondra, had to stand on a chair to keep her camera level with their faces while still getting the correct lighting.

They sprayed again and again, trying to get the perfect droplets of “sweat” streaking across the models’ faces.

R0010089

R0010086

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

This summer, Bondra will be moving to New York City for an internship with Sarah Kehoe Productions, a fashion photography studio.

“I’m really looking forward to seeing first hand how fashion photography really works,” says Bondra, “as well as working with people in the industry and learning how to grow my composition, retouching and lighting skills.”

“I think once she settles on what it is she want to shoot and specialize in, she is going to be very good. I know she has an internship with a photographer in New York this summer,” says Burkle. “I really believe that will be a very decisive summer for her. I think this fall you will see more of a focus in her work and style one way or another.”

Bondra agrees, adding, “I think this will really help me decide what I want to do after I graduate.”

A Valentine’s Day project by Kelly Bondra

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

The models step out of the ring and go to put their street clothes back on. Bondra takes a deep breath and releases it. She’s finished for the evening. The assistant start to pack up the umbrellas and lights. Bondra packs up her camera and lenses. She thanks the owner of the ring again and promises to send over the finished photos for them to see.

She seems relieved the shoot is over and is ready to head back home. It’s nearly 10 p.m. and everyone is tired. Bondra will now have to edit each of the photos and send them to the photo editor of Thread to be fitted for the magazine.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Kelly describes her photography style as feminine, but with an edge. She loves to include dark tones and shadows in her photographs as well as adding blue to her images. She would say that right now her style can be seen as soft but moody, dark and vulnerable.

“I’m not afraid to do weird stuff, like the butt photo,” she says, laughing. “I like that extra sense of feeling, more emotion. I try to create a concept that isn’t necessarily obvious and I also use my own personal and real emotions.”

A few of Kelly Bondra’s “weirder” shots, including “the butt photo”

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

When she’s ready to edit photos, Bondra looks through every single one she took at the shoot. Oftentimes this is upwards of 500 images. She narrows them down and narrows them down until only a few are left.

After picking her favorite unedited images, she goes in and retouches the skin and background for small blemishes. She corrects the tone to her personal preference.

With Thread however, this process is a little bit different. She simply sends her photos to the photo editor of the magazine and suggests some edits and makes a list of her favorite images. Sometimes she and editor make the same decision, but often they don’t.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

“I’m never happy at the end of a shoot,” Bondra says. “There’s always something that I wish I had done better or differently. I always find things to improve on and learn a lesson at the end of shoots.”

“Kelly needs to have more confidence in herself. While no one can hit a ‘home run’ photo every time, Kelly certainly can hit a double most all the time, and I hope that she realizes this,” says Hamel-Lambert. “She’s good now, and she is going to be a lot better in the future.”

When Bondra discusses her future, she hopes she will continue to grown in her work. She wants to create more cohesive work and have more successful shoots. She also would like to be someone that other photography students can look up to and admire.

“I’m really not worried about Kelly’s future. In my experience, a person who is as hard working, smart and talented as Kelly often go on to do great things,” says Burkle. “Whatever she decides to become, I’m confident she will go out and accomplish. Although, selfishly, I hope she graduates and wants to work for us in the future.” They’ve offered her a position at the studio for when she finishes school.

As for Bondra’s mom, she really just hopes her daughter continues to strive to be her best.

“We are proud of what Kelly‘s eyes see.  She has taught me much in these past 20 years.  She sees and listens with her heart.  I love the way she captures life and I can’t wait to see what comes next,” says Kathy. “I wish for her to try hard, be content, enjoy the people she meets along the way, develop an appreciation for the many things in life and become a great cook. And, GET A PUG!” Bondra has wanted to get a pug, her favorite dog, for several years and is hoping to get one after graduating.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Thread considered one of Bondra’s pictures for the cover of their final issue.

“They didn’t pick it because they said it was took moody and dark for spring,” says Bondra as she rolls her eyes. Several of her images appeared in a spread designed by her in the middle of the book.

“I try to capture the beauty that I see in other people,” she says. Most of the time, she is overwhelmingly successful.

The high fashion boxing shoot, final photos by Kelly Bondra