Kelsey McClellan

Kelsey McClellan: Personable Topiaries

Kelsey McClellan knew she wanted to be a photographer at age 14 when her father gave her his own film camera. It was an Olympus OM-1 35mm and it changed her life.

“I really enjoyed taking very long night-time exposures with it. I would take the same photo at different f/stops and shutter speeds and record them in a notebook so I could compare the differences once I developed the film. It was all so fun and new! I loved the technicality plus the spontaneity of it.”

In 2012, she graduated from Columbus College of Art & Design and has been a full-time photographer ever since. She has worked with various high profile companies like The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, and Wired.

On her Instagram account, Kelsey has been capturing bizarre yet captivating photos of topiary trees around San Francisco. They all seem to have their own personality and come in different shapes and sizes. Their natural form has been manipulated and subjugated to fit as domesticated urban plants, and they stand out from the norm. I reached out to Kelsey to understand her fascination with this particular subject and the reason behind it all.

What made you start this series?

“I’ve only lived in San Francisco for about two years now and topiaries were one of the first things that caught my eye. I recently moved to the Outer Sunset, a quiet, surfer-y neighborhood right on the beach, where there are so many amazing topiaries and beautiful, boxy pastel houses!

I started photographing them with my phone as I explored the neighborhood, walking to the grocery store or wherever. At this point, it is definitely more of a casual series of snapshots just for my enjoyment, but I do think it could be really interesting to do a more in depth series on them, perhaps finding their owners and asking why they’ve cut them into certain shapes, etc.”

At this point, it is definitely more of a casual series of snapshots just for my enjoyment, but I do think it could be really interesting to do a more in depth series on them, perhaps finding their owners and asking why they’ve cut them into certain shapes, etc.”

Of all these topiaries, is there one that is your favorite to look at?

“I love this one because it looks like a green nose on the face of a house. It’s one I spotted while driving and did a hard & fast U-turn to get back to!”

Currently, you’re living in San Francisco, do you miss Ohio?

“Yes, currently I live in San Francisco, California. I grew up in Columbus, Ohio and miss it very much. All of my friends and family live in Ohio so it will always be ‘home’ to me. Getting to know a new place is very fun and exciting though, especially with a landscape so different from what I know.”

Talk about your process in getting these shots.

“For shots like the topiaries they happen very organically – I just see them when I’m walking around and take a snap of the ones I like. Sometimes I do see them while I am driving or walking around and the lighting isn’t great, the sun is too hard or it’s too dark and if that happens I’ll just jot down the street and come back on the next foggy day, which is never too far away.”

What camera do you use for these photos?

“I use a Canon 5d Mk2, with either a 100mm or 50mm L lens. I mainly shoot handheld but do use a tripod often for studio work. I also always have an Olympus Stylus 35mm with me, because it’s so compact, and my iPhone.”

Do you have any artists/photographers that you admire or inspired by?

“Martin Parr (@martinparrstudio), Maurizio Cattelan (@mauriziocattelan), Ruth Van Beek (@ruth_van_beek), Grant Cornett (@grantcornett), Agnes Martin, Helen Frankenthaler, Keirnan and Theo Vamvounakis (@hippeopigemous). And of course, Michelle Maguire (art director/stylist of Wardrobe Snacks, and one half of our creative partnership, Terrence Caviar)! (@pandahandler).”

Kinda off topic but I love your “Wardrobe Snack” series. Aside from that project, you take a lot of food photos, could you explain the fascination, or is it for work/project?

“I love to photograph food — it is often very aesthetically pleasing to look at/photograph as well as delicious to eat. It’s a very versatile subject that comes with so much nostalgia. So many people have such strong associations or memories linked to different foods and it’s fun to play with those perceptions visually.

Any advice you’d like to give to other photographers starting out?

“Making personal work is so much more important than the jobs you get — and it is what will get you, jobs.”

Working on any projects at the moment?

“Michelle and I are actually doing just a few more Wardrobe Snacks shots next weekend, to round out the series and because we love them so much. We also are working on a pretty cool commission for a chocolate brand :).”

Written by Yung Tsai. Photos © Kelsey McClellan.
Follow Kelsey McClellan on her Instagram account. Visit her website for more work and info.
You can purchase the Wardrobe Snack prints here.

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