Big Pictures

E bony McKelvey’s five-year-old daughter, Jules, pointed to an advertising poster at a mall one day and said, “Mom, that should be me up there.” The picture, “of a little dark-skinned girl with her afro,” and Jules’s reaction told McKelvey her daughter was growing up in a different world than she had, a world in which she’d be able to see children who looked like her presented to the world as beautiful.

It was an important moment for McKelvey, a portrait and art photographer whose mission is “capturing the beauty of the African American woman.” That mission comes from the message she heard repeatedly from other children when she was growing up in New Haven, first in Rock View off Wilmot Road and later at Farnam Courts in Fair Haven. “As a young girl, I was picked on because of my looks,” McKelvey says. “I wasn’t seen as pretty because of my dark skin, short hair.”

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Family photographs were lacking as well; McKelvey has no images of herself before the age of seven. She remembers, as a child, discovering that fact. “You realize how special moments are that you can never get back, so that was one of the things that really kept me interested in taking pictures,” McKelvey says. She began to document the lives of her family and friends on disposable cameras and served as her middle school yearbook photographer at Augusta Lewis Troup School. From that time on, she says, everyone knew: “Ebony has the pictures.” But not just any pictures. “It was me wanting to actually capture life experiences as a young black girl in New Haven,” McKelvey says.

In college at Southern Connecticut State University, where she majored in psychology, McKelvey signed up for a darkroom class and found her classmates were intrigued by her work. “I was like, okay, this is something that I need to do, something I need to take more seriously,” she recalls. “This is something that I can use to make change.” She went on to take a digital photography class and started taking photos of her family again, calling them “my muse.”

However, a different focus took precedence after she graduated: fashion. McKelvey had always made her own clothes or repurposed old ones into something new. Her first post-college venture was a shoe store on Grand Avenue named Chic Boutique. But running the business wasn’t as much fun as she’d expected. “I didn’t feel fulfilled. I felt like I was going to a job. I wasn’t happy.” What she loved was when, after hours, her sister would come by, and McKelvey would transform the space into a little photography studio. Her boyfriend (now husband), Sean McKelvey, bought her first lighting equipment for her. She started posting pictures on Facebook, and people asked her to do photo shoots for them. She charged $20 and kept learning through books, videos, trial and error and lots of practice.

In 2013, McKelvey closed the shoe store and opened her photography studio, Ebony B. Photography (the B stands for her maiden name, Beatty), on State Street. Today, she works from an Erector Square studio, with two huge south-facing windows that fill the room with natural light—sometimes more than she wants. For better control during photo shoots, she often covers them. A fairy tale pink settee stands under one window. In the corner are bags of props—one dark teddy bear, one lighter, sometimes also used to test the light for different skin tones—as well as a white wicker chair, a jeweled baby stroller and several tall rolls of paper backdrops. The large, open space is segmented into a waiting area, a work space with a desk and an enclosed dressing room.

McKelvey’s offerings range from business headshots to family and youth portraits to editorial, often bringing her own style and flair to the images. Subjects are draped in yards of flowing fabric, glazed in gold, bathed in milk. Maternity shots are a specialty. “I love capturing women when they’re pregnant and just capturing the beauty in that itself,” she says.

Never one to stop learning, McKelvey stretched herself a few years ago to get outside the controllable environment of the studio and try her hand at documenting real people in Fair Haven, Newhallville, the Hill, “places where most people wouldn’t go or know of or [might] feel, ‘That’s dangerous.’” She wanted to show viewers, “‘Listen, we’re people just like you.’ There’s definitely beauty inside these areas.” McKelvey was uncomfortable at first approaching strangers with her camera, but she found people were excited to talk with her and be photographed. The result was her exhibition The Beautiful Ghetto during Artspace’s City-Wide Open Studios in 2018.

McKelvey’s newest project, Molested, presents even more of a personal challenge. She put out a call on Facebook for women and men who had been molested as children to tell her their stories and be photographed and was shocked at the number of responses among her acquaintances; more than two dozen women agreed to be interviewed. After hearing their stories, McKelvey will recreate “one part of their story that sticks with them” through photography. The project is turning out to be more emotionally draining than she expected, but she’s making it a priority. “One of the reasons why is because it’s something that I went through, and I felt like it would have been something that could help me push forward,” McKelvey says, adding, “I didn’t realize there were so many people.” She hopes to help others “to actually see that they’re not the only ones that’s been through it, [and] there’s a life after being molested.”

As difficult as that particular project is, McKelvey says she’s one of those lucky people who’s found her work in what she loves. Her first real camera, the Vivitar she used at Southern, has a place of honor on a top shelf in her studio. To this day, McKelvey says, “It doesn’t feel like work, it doesn’t feel like stress. It’s just me doing what I love, and I happen to be able to make money doing it.”

Ebony B. Photography
Erector Square – 315 Peck St, New Haven (map)
[email protected]

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 1, featuring Ebony McKelvey, photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Images 2-5 provided courtesy of Ebony B. Photography.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is a writer and communications pro whose perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the Green and a coffee milkshake. She posts twice-weekly content for book clubs in her Substack newsletter, Better Book Clubs.

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