September Art in the Café Artist: Ellen B. Marshall

Our featured café artist for September, Ellen B. Marshall, first got interested in photography at the age of five, when, in a portrait session with notable pictorial photographer Axel Bahnsen, she thought, “I want to do that.” Though her earliest subjects were her sister and friends or kids she babysat, her first assignment at the age of ten was to capture the signs of Yellow Springs, Ohio, for her father’s town planning commission work. We talked with Ellen about her photographic eye and what inspires it. The following are excerpts from our conversation.

What were some of your other early photography experiences?

I started making photographs on a 2 1/4 Rolleicird camera when I was eight years old. In sixth grade, I taught the two worst-behaved boys in my class how to enlarge and print photos, and at age 12, my photo of Crabtree Falls won first prize in the Greene County Ohio fair. That was the first time it dawned on me that the language of images and the tool of photography could be understood by others.

Significant training came from my mentors at home, school, and work, including my Dad, Moonphoto in Washington, Evergreen State College, and Maine Photographic Workshops. My cameras then were Nikons. Most important have been the opportunities to assist or shoot in a variety of situations, such as cave expeditions in Kentucky and Costa Rica, a press visit to Hanford Nuclear Site under construction, wedding reception at the Seattle Space Needle. I’d never turn down a chance to go along.

Is there a subject or theme that your photographs tend to usually cover?

Photo-making is a conversation with the subject. It was during college on an assignment of making 100 chicken pictures that I pushed my own barriers enough to discover the poetry in the components of an image, frame, textures, story, and actionable wonder of the viewer. I want to make images of whatever especially intrigues me when I have a camera, which my iPhone makes almost too handy. 

I’ve been doing a lot of vintage autos lately. It mostly depends on who I’m hanging around. The Montpelier Senior Activity Center has been good to me. 

What inspired this particular theme, “Musicians around Montpelier”?

Recent terrible health news launched me into a frenzied love affair with my music community for two reasons. If there is going to be any salvation, community music will get me there, and, if the future really can’t be stopped, I want photos to remind me or my family of who I might have been at this time.

Are you a musician also? What do you play?

Yes, I play the fiddle. I have hopes to get back into baritone saxophone, which I played in high school jazz band, but so far, a borrowed alto has just been waiting under the daybed for me to get honking. 

What do you see as the intersection or connection between photographs or any art and music?

It’s all art. Express emotions and you get the raw materials for art. But art takes work. Practicing techniques in conjunction with lubricated emotions for about 10,000 hours or more will result in an artist who has that instrument available. Then, when the conversation with a subject arises, they can easily express their gift.

How would you describe the music scene or culture in Montpelier? 

Broad, specialized, nurturing, and accessible. Anyone who desires to get involved in the Montpelier music scene can find venues to study and learn. We have so many teachers, jams, classes, workshops, concerts, camps, festivals, musical instrument sales and repair, and of course many appreciating listeners.

What do you hope to convey about that music scene and its musicians through these photos?

I’d like viewers to get a sense of what it feels like to be a musician and play with friends. Most musician photos are publicity shots where they’d better look good, or audience-taken shots, where important parts of the story are missing, such as fingers on the instrument, a beautiful bow arm, or the contextual story between the venue and the audience. My photos are more informal.

What do you hope the experience will be for people who view your photos?

After eating in the cafe, after seeing this photo show, leaving the Co-op and going about the mundane actions of life, I hope that people are inspired to tune into the beautiful things that they do well. If taking photos is part of your day, perhaps try something new, imagine an assignment. Work at it. And definitely say “Yes” to any chances to tag along.