Karen Melvin, a longtime Plymouth resident and one of the Twin Cities’ best-known architecture photographers, tells us about her newest photography book, Great Houses of Summit Avenue and the Hill District, an architectural exploration of St. Paul, and explains what she loves about Plymouth.
When did you know you wanted to be a photographer?
In high school; I was the editor of the yearbook, and I did some photography then. That’s really when I knew.
What inspires your photography?
History inspires me. There are a couple of buildings in Plymouth that people probably don’t notice because they’re tucked away. But there is some pioneer history in Plymouth. I also like riding my bike around Medicine Lake. There are a couple of churches back [along the path] that are very historic—pioneer-style, turn-of-the-century churches.
What are your favorite architectural spots in Plymouth?
When we (Melvin’s husband, Philip Prowse, is also an architecture photographer) moved to Plymouth from Minneapolis in 2007, I was looking for a house that would speak to me architecturally … I was looking for houses that had lots of high ceilings and architectural integrity. I came across a Ralph Rapson house that I really liked. [Rapson was the head of architecture at the University of Minnesota and practiced in the Minneapolis area for more than 50 years until his death in 2008]. It was an upside-down house, which means the bedrooms are on the first floor, and it was in a beautiful wooded area. That was one of my favorite finds.
I think the new library in Plymouth is really a stunning building. In fact, I think it’s Plymouth’s best building. It’s got a green roof, and big sheets of glass, and it’s very welcoming. It’s light-filled, and that’s what you need in a library.
What makes Plymouth a great city for creative people?
This is going to sound silly, but you can get a really good night’s sleep in Plymouth! I live across from Hollydale Golf Course, and it’s very quiet out here. Plymouth also has a fabulous library, and I use the library a lot when I’m doing research. [I also attend] yoga classes at Life Time Fitness, and I use that time for meditation. I meditate about what I’m doing creatively. I’m asking the universe to bring in ideas … I’m opening myself up to new ideas, new thoughts and connections. I also love going to movies at either the Muller Family Theatre (Willow Creek 12) or Mann Theatre (Plymouth Cinema 12); I use movies for visual inspiration as well as storytelling inspiration.
What inspired you to create your locally focused photography books, Legendary Homes of Lake Minnetonka, Legendary Homes of the Minneapolis Lakes and Great Houses of Summit Avenue?
About 10 years ago, I met Bette Hammel [Melvin’s co-author], who lives in Wayzata. We had a cabin on Cooks Bay and she lived across the street from the lake. We discovered that we had these similar experiences of taking friends and family out on our boats and showing them the homes around the lake. We developed an article about the boathouses of Lake Minnetonka, and then we decided, wouldn’t it be fun to do a book? We did [Legendary Homes of Lake Minnetonka] in 2009, then Legendary Homes of the Minneapolis Lakes in 2012, and Great Houses of Summit Avenue last October. So my career has taken that path. I still shoot for architects and interior designers, but now I’ve got this new layer of doing books. What I’m finding is that [architecture] really connects people to their locale. In St. Paul, for example, the population is a very tight-knit group. They’re really proud of their heritage there.
Where’s your favorite place to go for a bite to eat in the area?
I love Bukhara Indian Bistro on Wayzata Blvd.
What advice do you have for up-and-coming architecture photographers?
Learn from an architecture photographer and develop your own style and skills. Commercial photography is different from art photography: With fine art, an artist has a lot of time to work it out on their own. When you’re hired to do a job, you need to go out and come back with the goods. And with architecture, it can be difficult because you’re in interior spaces, and they have different sources of lighting. Understanding lighting is such a valuable skill.
Check out Karen Melvin’s beautiful photographs at karenmelvin.com.