Kelly Marshall on the power of personal architecture in commercial, editorial, and fine art photography. New York-based Kelly Marshall works across fine art, editorial, and commercial photography to visualize how personal belief systems can manifest themselves into our everyday. Essentially – how these structures can design our lives, our homes – the blueprints for which […]

Kelly Marshall on the power of personal architecture in commercial, editorial, and fine art photography.

New York-based Kelly Marshall works across fine art, editorial, and commercial photography to visualize how personal belief systems can manifest themselves into our everyday. Essentially – how these structures can design our lives, our homes – the blueprints for which we live.

Marshall’s style is pointed and subtle, using light to communicate the deep, nuanced, and open psychology of her wide breadth of subjects. This ranges from a portrait of Trevor Noah to a bowl of rainbow ice salad photographed for Travel and Leisure.

She’s also in the midst of a long-term personal project Birthing of a Nation, which, in Marshall’s words, is “an afro futuristic account of the history of the reproductive justice movement and the healing arts of Black women since 1619.”

Marshall is a frequent contributor to the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. Commercial clients include CB2, Pottery Barn, Ebay, T Brand Studio, Architectural Digest, and Bon Appetite Magazine.

Her work has been exhibited at MOAD: The Museum of The African Diaspora, Southern Exposure, PhotoVille & Rush Arts, and she was 2018 Lit List awardee by Authority Collective.

The Luupe speaks with Marshall to learn more about her process and journey.

Trevor Noah photographed by Kelly Marshall for The Washington Post

The Luupe: Your work is so varied, yet so consistent. We see a similar eye and vision whether you’re photographing Trevor Noah for The Washington Post or an interior for CB2. Can you describe your way of seeing and approach across genres and assignments?

Kelly Marshall: My approach is to tap into the energy of the space and create a connection with the subject as quickly as possible. I try to lead with what already exists (whether that is lighting, environment, a conversation) before imposing my agenda or vision onto the approach of image-making. My intention is to transport the viewer to that specific moment so I employ color, texture, and high contrast of light and shadows to create an invitation for an emotional connection.

© Kelly Marshall for Curbed

The Luupe: You describe your work as exploring “how they construct our lives, our physical homes, and in essence, our everyday reality.” In your mind, what does this look like? 

Marshall: Belief systems are varied, wildly subjective, and emotionally driven. In both the fine art and commercial worlds it dictates what gets amplified or ignored. I simply see my work as a mirror to what we believe. I am endlessly fascinated by what we value and thereby needs to be photographed, examined, or published and what that belief costs to our wallets, our communities, and our environment. As a lens-based artist, I am projecting a virtual reality consistently.

The Luupe: What have you learned about these connections as you continue to make commercial and personal work?

Marshall: I’ve learned that you can dictate that reality any way you want by changing the imagery of your mind. Change the way you think and things begin to change.

© Kelly Marshall

The Luupe: When did you realize you wanted to dedicate your life to being a photographer, image-maker, and visualizer?

Marshall: There really was no aha moment. I was a very creative child and knew I wanted to make a life as an artist by the time I was in college. So I spent a lot of time working on my craft and exploring mediums and making lots of mistakes. By the time I was doubting my choice to become an artist or rather feeling a very great pressure to be living a life I thought I should be at a certain age- I felt I was in too deep to do anything else. There was no magical moment. I kept doubling down on this career and kept moving forward as best as possible.

Don’t get me wrong- I love my job and I am passionate about it – I probably have one of the funnest and most interesting careers you could ask for but the business of art/photography is tough and not for the faint of heart.

© Kelly Marshall


© Kelly Marshall for Travel and Leisure

The Luupe: Has mentorship played into your practice at all (as a mentor or mentee?)

Marshall: I think community has had a greater impact on my career than mentorship. Having a solid group of individuals you can lean on, rely on and workshop ideas and problems over has been invaluable to me staying in business but most importantly mentally sane. I don’t discount the power of mentorship, I just never had any lasting experiences in that department.

I’ve started mentoring with Color Positive’s programs here in New York City high schools. I am looking forward to more one-on-one work with students interested in photography. My career path was non-linear and I believe that knowledge can be of service to young people of color who often have to work outside a system that has traditionally not welcomed us wholeheartedly.

© Kelly Marshall

The Luupe: What was the most encouraging moment in your career so far?

Marshall: I suppose my crowdfunding for my film. I was blown away by the support both financial and emotional from so many strangers. As an artist, I work independently and am in my head so much it was very encouraging to have that support to keep going.

The Luupe: How about Most surprising?

Marshall: I have to say 2020. The world changed in so many ways and the photographic industry finally is opening its doors to creatives of color in real and impactful ways. The opportunities and conversations I am having now with clients and change-makers is unlike anything in my 15-year career.

The Luupe: What about most frustrating?

Marshall: I think the most frustrating is an aspect of our industry that I still grapple with which is support. If you are not represented it is a constant struggle running a business, client relationships, negotiating, and getting paid. I’ve had only three bad moments with clients that got ugly. Not having an HR department or support from an agency was both damaging and toxic. As a freelancer, you are very vulnerable and I don’t think that is addressed often enough.

The Luupe: Getting back to the successful funding of your film, Birthing of a Nation – where did the initial idea come from? How did it develop into a film?

Marshall: Birthing of a Nation came from a conversation with a doula friend in 2016. She was telling me about maternal health disparities in Black and Brown communities and I was like- what? How have I not heard about this before? So I started taking portraits of Black women doing birth work- doulas, Midwives, OBGYN’s.

I knew if there was something going down in the Black community there were Black women leading the charge to fix it. I wasn’t interested in what mainstream media had to say on the topic. The idea to turn it into a film came after a portfolio review at The New York Times. My portraits were far too conceptual and artistic for the news cycle but one reviewer said- hey- you have a story here- see it through as a documentary. And it went from there.

The Luupe: This might be an obvious question, but for you, why is the film so important right now?

Marshall: The film has been a slow incubator and the more I researched the more questions I had around reproductive justice and women’s health. Women are so un and misinformed about sex, birth, and health in general- it’s rather mind-blowing. Over the last few years birth justice has become much more well known and thanks to the tireless work of so many women this issue is no longer ignored or dismissed.

My consistent intention with the film was not to focus on the crisis but rather the women doing the work. We have been taking care of our communities since 1619 so I hope the film can actively shift the narrative from victim to she-ro and rewrite what we know of American history.

The Luupe What has the response to the project been so far?

Marshall: We are still in development and plan to resume the filming intended for 2020. The response has been great- this is a film made by and for Black women and they are always my greatest supporters.

© Kelly Marshall for Ghetto Gastro/ Crux

The Luupe: What are you most excited and hopeful about into the new year and beyond?

Marshall: I’m most excited about the future shift in storytelling. With groups like Authority Collective, Black Women Photographers, Diversify Photo, Color Positive, Everyday Projects, Women Photograph, and MANY others, we are getting to see the world with very different lenses and finally shift not only narratives but institutions. There is no longer “one” way to make it in this business so I’m really excited to see what the next generation of lens-based workers do to change the world.