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Story Behind Kensington Photographer Nan Phelps

After moving from Hawaii to the Bay Area, Nan Phelps found a high-profile home for her photography studio on Colusa Circle in Kensington.

Story Behind Kensington Photographer Nan Phelps


Owner: Nan Phelps

May I ask your age? Let's just say that I have four decades of young art school graduates nipping at my heels.

How did you get into photography? I was going to be a doctor, until I went to get the cell off of the frog and it kicked back. I dropped my medical career. All of my notebooks were always covered with drawings, and I thought if I majored in art, I would have a skill when I graduated from college, and maybe I could actually do something.

Back then, photography was not really considered art. It was separate, way down with the athletic department, which was liberating. With art, you were always comparing yourself to Georgia O’Keefe and Michelangelo—and who were you to think you could do that. But they didn’t have that in photography—it was just, “Here’s the dark room, see ya.” That’s when you really got to feel artistic, not with the weight of all these other great people on you.

That’s when I started to do photography. I photographed all of my friends—my cat, my friends hands, my friends brushing their hair, whatever family I was close to at the time.

When I graduated in drawing and printmaking I thought, “You know, I can do this.” I always asked to see other people's albums and I thought, “I can do better than this.”

And how did you choose Kensington as the location for your business? Driving on Solano—I live in the Richmond hills, and I passed this building every day. It’s such a beautiful building. I always loved this part of Kensington, but I had no idea that it’s a real village.

You could say working here has been a pleasure for you, then? It’s been great. People stop and talk here much more than they do on Solano Avenue. Here, they’re just walking and talking.

Like being a part of life. It is! The jobs are much more personal—it’s everything I love.

Are you a Bay Area native? My dad was a submariner. That means we lived near oceans. Mostly the Pacific, but I went to high school and college in Hawaii.

My sister was here. The Bay Area is the antidote to Hawaii. Hawaii is vacation land. For me, it’s really hard to be a young person there if you’re not a surfer. Recently, a friend got married there and I took friends with me. One of my most respected friends—he’s a college professor—said, “You know, they don’t have a life of the mind here. They don’t read.” And I said, “That’s it!” Something huge was missing, and when I came to Berkeley it was right. Everyone is using their talents. There’s not that boredom of being in a hot tropical place.  

For other installments in our Who's Who in Local Business series, click .

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