Remembering photographer Ann Marsden

Photographer Ann Marsden died last night at home after a long battle with cervical cancer. She was 55. Among those at her side were Ann Prim, her partner of 12 years, and her best friend Lisa Nebenzahl.

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Photographer Ann Marsden at a benefit in her honor at The Dakota in January 2011. Her mother Mary Marsden is seen in the background.

Photo by Terry Gydesen

A true photographer and artist to the last, Nebenzahl says Marsden asked for her partner to create a website and post photos there of her treatment and decline. You can see those photos here.

She wanted people to see what cancer looked like, as an artist and as a photographer – there are images up on the site that are very hard to see if you loved this woman… this woman who has made so many people look beautiful. It’s about witnessing the truth of the disease, the devastation, and what it truly looks like.

Nebenzahl says just in the last few months Marsden created a series of photographs that were in essence a poem about cancer, and even in her last hours she was talking about making pictures.

Known for her portraiture, her photography of local theater companies, and for her own personal art, the Minnesota native made friends easily with her intensely engaging personality. She was a regular photographer for Penumbra Theater, Jungle Theater, Minnesota Orchestra, MPR and many other Twin Cities cultural institutions, as well as a host of actors and musicians.

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Portrait of Stacia Rice by Ann Marsden

Theater artist Stacia Rice worked with Marsden on several occasions. Rice also helped organize a Christmas carol sing in Marsden’s front yard when she was too weak to receive visitors.

I don’t know what I can say to encapsulate someone so magnificent. It’s hard to imagine her gone, because she had more life in her than anyone I’ve ever known. She knew how to capture the very essence of people she sat in a room with – that is why she is such a great photographer, and that is why she is so loved. I can only think that she is meant to go on to do greater things – that’s the only way I can understand her being gone.

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Portrait of Stephen King by Ann Marsden

Longtime friend and fellow photographer Larry Marcus repeatedly uses the word “brilliant” when describing Marsden. He remembers the day he met her.

I believe it was 1974 or 75 – I was wandering around in St. Paul, shooting pictures and I wandered into Finn’s Camera, and I was greeting by this young beautiful person in the store, who immediately engaged me in meaningful and interesting conversation. I came in a few more times, and then she invited me to a party. We became friends and shared a studio together for close to twenty years – we were young people trying to make our way in the world and shooting photographs together.

The same intensity and intelligence and brilliance and affection that I experienced that first day at Finn’s Camera I experienced up until the very end with her. I saw her on Friday – she was having a good day.

Marcus said as a portrait photographer Marsden made “a place for people to really reveal themselves… and she did that by really opening up, too.”

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Terry Gydesen and Ann Marsden at a James J. Hill House exhibit in 2009

Photo by Lisa Nebenzahl

Marsden taught photography for many years, and has numerous devoted mentees who credit her for their successful careers, including friend Terry Gydesen.

I think she is one of the greatest artists in Minnesota – she just was such a giver. Most people don’t like to have their picture taken, yet she always could draw out the essence of who somebody was, and just nail it. She could see inside the souls of people, and make their inner beauty shine. Every one of her photos has that special Ann Marsden quality – that light. I don’t know anybody who could get it the way she did.

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Portrait of Minnesota Orchestra conductor Osmo Vanska by Ann Marsden. Vanska was an admirer of Marsden’s work, and appeared at her benefit.

Another devoted mentee is Dani Werner, who shared studio space with Marsden starting in 2003.

She took me under her wing and it’s because of her I’ve had a really great career. Ann is so creative and innovative with photography – she was always finding new ways to use light and express her vision. She could take a walk around the block and end up with a series of insightful and beautifully composed photos. She always had her camera on her hip or over her shoulder – it was like another limb for her. She was both passionate and intuitive with her work.

One person who wasn’t able to talk today is Marsden’s partner Ann Prim. Lisa Nebenzahl says Prim was Marsden’s full-time caregiver for the last two years. Nebenzahl says Prim’s career as a filmmaker helped Marsden to explore her own artwork in new and profound ways over the last decade.

You can hear Marsden talk about her work and career in her own words in this video from 2009: