Behind the Lens
Spirit in the Material World
How NYC photographer Kelly Marshall captures the interior worlds of people, places, and things
“Rooms have souls, and if you get quiet enough you can hear what they have to say.” In a recent live conversation with Elle Decor Editor-in-Chief Asad Syrkett, Kelly Marshall shared this “nugget of wisdom,” as Syrkett put it, beautifully encapsulating her unique approach to the craft of photography.
With a practice that bridges both fine and commercial arts, this well-traveled, New York-based photographer wields her lens like a portal to the interior worlds of people, places, and things, through which the spirit in and beyond the material is revealed. Even when carefully composed, her interiors, portraiture, and still life photography has a reportage quality, maximizing natural light to convey what it feels like to be there in the moment.
If you’re a design and lifestyle aficionado, you’ve likely encountered Marshall’s work. She’s an increasingly regular contributor to an array of major publications, including Architectural Digest, Elle Decor, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, New York Magazine, Travel & Leisure, Bon Appétit, Food & Wine, Shape, and British Vogue. Her work has also been exhibited at PhotoVille in Brooklyn, Rush Arts in Philadelphia, and the Museum of the African Diaspora and Southern Exposure in San Francisco.
Marshall’s mounting achievements have only fed her long-time commitment to giving back and building community. Her efforts of late have been focused on expanding equity and inclusion, notably in the overwhelmingly white and male-dominated fields of photography, visual arts, and design. In addition to her membership in organizations like Diversify Photo, Women Photograph, Color Positive, Authority Collective, Black Artists + Designers Guild, and Female Design Council, she’s currently working on her first documentary, Birthing of a Nation, which uplifts the reproductive justice movement and the legacy of Black women’s healing arts in the US since 1619.
We reached out to this inspiring talent to find out more about her way of seeing the world and how it is reflected in her lyrical, in-demand work.
When did you know you wanted to be a photographer? What aspects of the craft set you on your current path?
I was an artistic child and knew I wanted to have a creative career but wasn’t sure of the medium or how to actually make it happen. I studied studio arts at university, and although painting is my first true love, I found the camera and photography in general to be quite practical.
The medium had a way of connecting me to the world in a way that I found irresistible. I brought a camera with me everywhere, and it gave me access—as well as permission—to be in spaces where I did not always feel the most comfortable. It terrified me, but the excitement of the impending images was far greater than my fear.
How does your way of seeing the world show up in your work?
When I first started using my camera, it was a way to be both invisible and in the center of everything. It was my passport to the world, and I was more of an observer than a full participant. I was young and unsure of my place in the world, trying to find my way. Although I no longer feel that way, I still enjoy approaching my work similarly.
I like serving as a mirror—revealing what is going on in the quieter and implied moments of an image and inherently in life itself. It’s a very different frequency to allow a space or person to reveal themselves versus pushing my projected vision onto them. It’s a deeper connection. We could all benefit from more quality connections with each other and ourselves.
How does your approach change (or stay the same) when capturing spaces vs. people?
My approach for both subjects is the same: to invoke an emotional response, connectivity, and reflections. For both, I have to make a quick connection to allow vulnerability and possibility.
Whether tuning into the energy of a space or person, I stay curious about what story is being projected as well as the emotional story that lies underneath the surface. In my mind, it’s all the same way of being with the work.
What skills are you most proud of? What aspects of your practice are most gratifying?
I’m most proud of my patience and tenacity. Building a creative life is not an easy path—there is no guidebook, and the road is paved mostly in darkness. There are many potholes, especially for artists of color.
Anyone can take a photo today. But believing in yourself with an unwavering faith in and connection to your path is a honed skill—one that can take a lifetime. On the flip side though is the ability to collaborate with incredible humans, to expand belief systems, and to simply create consistently. What can be more gratifying than that?
Tell us about the organizations you’re involved with. How does collaboration and community-building feed into your practice?
It is with immense gratitude that I got to collaborate with these organizations. They are run by very dedicated, intelligent, and talented people giving a lot of their time to make the photography and art world a better place. Sadly they all came into being to fill an immense gap in our industry. As with most things in America, Black and Brown people had to make their own ways and build community to do so.
In a unique collaboration during Covid, commercial photographers and photojournalists joined forces to say no more to exclusion, lower wages, discrimination, and shadow banning in our industry. We created a Photographers Bill of Rights as a call to action, a guide with toolkits and an ethical code for lens-based workers.
I find photography to be a very collaborative medium. You are always engaging with something, even if inanimate. On a larger scale, my relationships with various organizations and my community at large have been invaluable to my success. I see them as completely intertwined—a sort of biosphere of giving and receiving.
How would you characterize your commercial and fine art practices? What themes are you exploring in each?
Everything we purchase, wear, and surround ourselves with stems from an idea about ourselves—one that’s deeply grounded in our belief systems about the world and ourselves. I’m grateful to have the opportunity to merge my commercial and artistic pursuits to explore these themes.
In a commercial space, I illuminate goods for sale—and in turn the viewer has a dialogue with themselves about these items. Do they need them? Do they want them? What do the objects say about themselves? Evoking an emotional response is again the intention. Commercially, the client desires this response to elicit a purchase. Artistically, I aspire for the emotional response to lead to critical discourse with oneself and the wider world.
The exploitation of existentialism is at the core of all advertising, and the human experience is frightening and transitory—as well as divine, of course. So I work with the same themes of joy, isolation, distraction, beauty, and love no matter where the work lives.
What is one of your most unexpected or unforgettable experiences as a photographer?
That is a tough question. I’ve been in some beautiful places for sure. But I would say that the overall lifestyle has been the most unexpected and unforgettable.
Over the last 20 years, I’ve been invited into many homes, hotels, and resorts and met and worked with many people from all walks of life—from the famous and infamous to the culturally invisible. This passport to life has given me unparalleled access to see behind all kinds of doors—literally!
As a New Yorker, it’s very easy for me to walk down the street and bump into someone I’ve worked with. It’s extremely gratifying to have touched so many lives and be touched by so many myself. As a photographer, it is within your reach to connect to people in a very unique way—and that’s rather incredible.
Do you have a dream subject that you’d love to photograph but haven’t yet?
Fendi Casa, World of Interiors, and Apartamento Magazine have been on my list for a while. But currently it’s more about dream collaborators and the relational nature of storytelling—people like Kira Kelly, Trevor Stuurman, and Ava DuVernay.
Please tell us about the documentary you’re working on, Birthing of a Nation.
In 2016, a midwife friend shared with me the details of the maternal healthcare crisis within the Black community. At the time, the situation was largely unknown outside birth-work circles. I was shocked by the numbers and honestly couldn’t believe no one was talking about it. I knew that if something was going down in the Black community, there was most likely a bunch of incredible Black women trying to fix it—historically this is what we do. So I made sure my story started there.
I became obsessed with the constructs and business of birth. I do not have children, so I had no first hand experience. I had to start at ground zero and was again shocked by how little women are supported, cared for, and educated through the process. Simultaneously, I began researching the history of maternal care in this country and the Black women on the front lines of this work, past and present. I wanted to make sure I was reporting on this story from their perspective—not the greater media one.
What I found through my research was that Black women have been at the core of American expansion and wealth since 1619. Via the experience of birth in all its forms, the film illuminates the history of Black women in the US; how much they have given, triumphed, and continue to contribute within a society that is violently committed to and benefitting from keeping us economically, physically, and socially disadvantaged.
How can people support your work?
Developing and producing this film is my top priority. You can donate to the film fundraiser here.
Thank you, Kelly! ◆
Follow Kelly Marshall on Instagram @sans.murs and @birthingofanation.
And if you’re in Boston on March 9th, check out Birth Matters: Art and Design for Maternal and Infant Health, a public talk hosted by Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Marshall will participate in the panel discussion along with MFA Boston curator Michelle Millar Fisher, Nashira Baril of Boston’s Neighborhood Birth Center, Naitasia Hensey of Mass NOW, and Amie Shao of MASS Design Group.