How to transform the ordinary into the beautiful with Kelsey McClellan’s new book

Photographer Kelsey talks us through living by the mantra “under the rock is an eel,” and transforming the San Francisco streets into art through her uncanny lens.

7 September 2021
Reading Time
4 minute read


San Francisco-based photographer Kelsey McClellan’s first artistic interests laid with drawing and painting, two mediums that you can see permeate her current photographic portfolio. Colours burst through the screen, negative space snags your attention whilst the dynamic form and composition of her still-life snaps become almost painting-like in their stasis. “I like getting out of my head and common physical space,” Kelsey tells It’s Nice That. “Photography kinda forces you to jump into the present unlike anything else.” Her last project, Wardrobe Snacks, was a perfect example of such artistic capabilities, but now her keen eye for the colour and idiosyncrasy in the every day has led her to a new book If This Isn’t Nice (and we like the name, if we do say so ourselves). The book details everyday sights around the sunny, magical, and saturated city of San Francisco, where Kelsey moved after studying in Ohio. Although trained in studio photography, Kelsey’s latest book takes place entirely on-location. “I like to try to apply my studio aesthetic into on-location assignments as much as possible by being very intentional about lighting and colour,” she says. “Even if I don’t have full control over a situation.”

The book is an incredible evolution of Kelsey’s already technically and aesthetically impressive portfolio. Whereas Wardrobe Snacks was a “collaborative project with [a] good friend and creative partner, Michelle Maguire,” If This Isn’t Nice is a series that Kelsey naturally accumulated over years spent in her neighbourhood. “It was something I just built up pretty passively, without really thinking of it as a real ‘project’ for the first few years.” Whilst Kelsey’s projects, book, and work span varying subjects and locations – there is an undeniable signature visual language. It’s something unmistakably her: colourful, sharp, odd yet familiar. One way that Kelsey describes this is by recalling a common phrase from Turin, Italy that she saw at an Ettore Sottsass show. “‘Under the rock is an eel,’ which means hidden wonder awaits discovery in common things,” Kelsey explains. “I felt like this applies so much to what I’m drawn to in photography – emphasising mundane moments in the right way makes them seem like something else entirely.”


Kelsey McClellan: If This Isn't Nice (Copyright © Kelsey McClellan 2021)

It’s a mantra Kelsey keeps around to help her seek out the excitement in the everyday “by just looking at it differently.” It’s no wonder that the concept translates so well to book form, as each page dazzles with a new perspective on the neighbourhood Kelsey resides in, creating an entire narrative and world of that very city in which she compassionately dedicates herself. She references local creatives (both past and alive) as sources of inspiration. Ranging from painters Robert Bechtle and Wayne Thiebaud, to sculptor Ron Nagle, to the quilter and sign painter Jeffrey Sincich – it’s clear that Kelsey knows, loves, and appreciates the history of art and artists of San Francisco. “When I first moved to the outer sunset neighbourhood in 2016 it felt so different from any other place I’ve ever lived,” she tells us. “The houses are all smooshed together tightly with no front yards and are mostly painted with beautiful pastel colours.” The topiaries are what immediately stood out to Kelsey, and so she started documenting them. “While seeking out the bushes I noticed more and more to love,” she says. “The painted blobby shapes on driveways, brightly coloured hoses, the ways the houses and flowers reflect in cars at different times throughout the seasons.”

With the onset of the pandemic, Kelsey had more time to walk around the neighbourhood and focus on the series. “While shooting I also started noticing more and more houses going up for sale and getting painted grey and remodelled to be more ‘modern,’” Kelsey laments. “Very unique, working-class homes are now selling for over a million dollars here and a lot of the character is disappearing.” Whilst a depressing indication of the ongoing plague of exuberant and exclusionary wealth in San Francisco, Kelsey is happy her book can in some ways archive the beauty of what was. “It’s sad to witness in real-time,” she says.

Kelsey is currently working on another ongoing series of various fake flowers she’s collected with her friend Michelle. “We’ve almost wrapped it up, so beyond that, I’m not really sure on what’s next,” she tells us. “I'd love to do a series similar to this outside of my neighbourhood, but don’t want to get ahead of things just yet regarding my travel daydreams.”

GalleryKelsey McClellan: If This Isn't Nice (Copyright © Kelsey McClellan 2021)

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Kelsey McClellan: If This Isn’t Nice (Copyright © Kelsey McClellan 2021)

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About the Author

Joey Levenson

Joey joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in May 2020 after graduating from King’s College, London. Previously, Joey worked as a writer for numerous fashion and art publications, such as HERO Magazine, Dazed, and Candy Transversal.

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