Mike Kelley was perusing the Internet when he learned about a guy who had spent two decades of his life collecting Pan Am paraphernalia to replicate the airline’s 747 cabin that was sitting in his garage. As someone who finds himself “browsing the web at 2 a.m. looking up articles on aviation and aviation history,” he was intrigued.
“That is what I have to shoot,” he recalls in a video interview. As an architecture and interiors photographer whose work is featured in magazines like Real Simple and Dwell, Kelley planned to shoot the mock cabin the way he photographs houses and apartments, but Anthony Toth, owner of the Pan Am Experience by Air Hollywood, had something more elaborate in mind.
“I think it was certainly his dream to do this, he just didn’t have the means to do it,” Kelley said. “So when I came along, he was like really, really stoked about the whole thing.”
Although Toth had received hundreds of offers from other photographers and publishers, including Playboy, none had the plain intention of capturing the Pan Am Experience for the painstaking archive of aviation history that it is.
Meticulous about getting every detail right, Toth wanted to use models dressed in the authentic flight attendant uniforms and even called up a contact to provide the catering to reproduce the in-flight meals from an old Pan Am menu.
The side project turned out to be the largest production Kelley ever worked on. It involved several meetings and drives to Toth’s warehouse an hour outside of Los Angeles to work on lighting, angles and casting. The shoot involved a team of six photography assistants, 20 models, three stylists and two 12-hour days of shooting – plus another month for post-production.
“All of the wide shots are composites to some degree, some more than others. The most time intensive task was cleaning up, stretching, skewing, and otherwise tidying up an aircraft interior that had seen 30 years of service,” Kelley explains on his blog. He further adds, “I wanted them to look like they were shot in the 1970s. Not like they were a bunch of people in 1970s clothing shot today.”
Other than watching the short-lived Pan Am TV series (2011) Kelley has no relationship with the original Pan American World Airways. But as a self-proclaimed “aviation nerd,” he said he understands the airline’s impact on the Jet Age.
To pursue his passion for aviation, Mike Kelley is currently working on a photo series where he spends an entire day shooting airplane departures that are then composed into a single photograph. “Wake Turbulence,” shot from LAX, is the first, with shots from Dubai International Airport to be released. He is also working on a collection of black and white aviation photographs that he hopes will culminate into a coffee table book, and that someday, his hobby for shooting aircraft and aircraft interiors will cross paths with his professional career.
Check out the behind-the-scenes video Pan Am Flies Again, from the Pan Am Experience shoot: