"I was born curious about people, places and things," photographer Ann Marsden once said about a 30-year career that took her from her north Minneapolis studio to travels around the world.

Beloved by the Twin Cities arts community, Marsden made her reputation photographing actors, musicians and personalities, from Guthrie Theater director Joe Dowling to Minnesota Orchestra conductor Osmo Vanska and Grammy Award-winning singer-conductor Bobby McFerrin. Nationally, her subjects included politicians Barack Obama and Al Gore and dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov. Her corporate clients ranged from Best Buy to Target Corp.

Marsden, 55, died at her St. Paul home Sunday, two years after a diagnosis of cervical cancer.

"Annie was a great creative spirit," said Lisa Nebenzahl, a friend for more than 30 years. "She took portraits as a living, but she really was an artist at the core and that informed all of her work."

When she first picked up a camera in a high school journalism class, Marsden once said, she felt a "spiritual" charge that led her to seek the emotional truth of an image rather than to fret about technical perfection. Her memorable portraits were marked by deft lighting, vibrant colors and dynamic compositions that enhanced their subjects without compromising their honesty. She hated schedules and loved traveling to places as near as Mount Rushmore and as distant as Southeast Asia. Always she was drawn by the faces of the people she met.

Her bread-and-butter work, however, was for the actors and musicians of the Twin Cities for whom she shot album covers, promotional portraits and stage performances.

"She was such a bright, energetic communicator and such a great artist," said Bain Boehlke, artistic director of the Jungle Theater. Boehlke worked with Marsden for more than 20 years. She was a sensitive collaborator who recognized good ideas, made work fun, and who "always seemed able to elicit authentic emotional and poetic energy from the actors," he said.

After her cancer diagnosis became public knowledge, clients and friends staged a sold-out benefit for her at the Dakota Jazz Club in January 2011. It ran for five hours and included spirited tributes by wordsmith Kevin Kling, guitarist Dean Magraw and singers Dennis Spear, Allison Scott, Prudence Johnson and John Gorka, among others.

Largely self-taught

Born and raised in St. Paul, Marsden attended Our Lady of Peace High School but did not graduate. When she was about 16 she began working at Finn's Camera Store, a local emporium, and was self-taught from then on. National assignments often took her to New York, but the Twin Cities remained her home base.

Besides her commercial work, Marsden also made documentary, travel and quirky still-life images -- of cars, shop windows, odd furniture -- that demonstrated her keen eye and quick wit. She revealed a moodier side in an exhibition, "Discarded but Not Lost," at IFP gallery in St. Paul in May 2010. A dual show with filmmaker Ann Prim, it featured small, dusky pictures of such familiar but rarely memorialized things as a wishbone or an abandoned book. It was her first gallery show in more than 20 years.

"What we are familiar with we cease to see until it is seen and presented anew by another," Marsden and Prim wrote about the IFP project.

IFP curator Vance Gellert said Marsden's "low key, intriguing, contemplative and soothing" art prints contrasted with her own vibrant personality. "She always knew how to make you feel special and happy to be with her," he said.

She is survived by her partner, Ann Prim; her mother, Mary Marsden of St. Paul; sister Betsy McConnell of Boston; and brothers Brian Marsden, of St. Paul, and Craig Marsden, of New York City. Her father, David Marsden, a Ramsey County district judge, predeceased her.

Prim and family members are planning a memorial at the Fitzgerald Theater, possibly in fall, with details to be announced later.

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431