Robb Interview: Jesse Marlow
An award-winning Australian ‘street’ photographer, Marlow explores his new book, Melbourne’s lost grit and learning to be creative during COVID.
Robb Report: ‘Second City’ is your impressive new book — talk us through the title and the narrative such sets out; does this play to the notion of the ‘unseen city’, that is, the ‘unremarkable’ city and those unnoticed occurrences of the everyday?
Jesse Marlow: Yes and No. Initially the term ‘Second City’ came to mind because of the constant reference to Melbourne (in regards to Sydney) as Australia’s ‘Second City’ during the initial Covid-19 reporting. The title took on a whole new meaning when I was editing the photo’s and reflecting on the major changes Melbourne has undergone over the past 20-25 years. From the desolate streets to the now bustling metropolis, the title has come to encompass the fact that the photographs show a whole different side of a well-known city. As someone whose lived here my whole life, there’s always an unknown or long forgotten side to a city to discover or rediscover.
RR: The period captured here, the late ‘90s and into the new millennium — what are your memories from that time?
JM: It wasn’t until the early 2000’s that the CBD seemed to really awaken. With the onset of apartment living, the unique laneways began to be utilised with cafes and bars starting to pop up in innovative spots. As a young photographer discovering the ins and outs of my hometown, I would wander the streets, often in awe of the characters and subcultures, I’d encounter. There was an edge and an element of grit to the city and its people. Older men in three-piece suits and hats; young punks and old drunks. You’d walk around the city and there was an abundance of characters you’d come across on a daily basis. The city and its urban planning hadn’t been as refined as it is today — thugs weren’t as structured and clean as they now seem. The simple things in the city brought me inspiration — sitting on the steps under the clocks at Flinders St Station watching on, camera in hand, as people started moving in and out of the station.
RR: As you say, Melbourne as a city has certainly grown-up a lot since then. Do you miss what was perhaps a sense of innocence that existed back then?
JM: I miss the edginess and gritty feel to the city. As many of the characters and unique independent shops have long disappeared from the city streets, I feel like the city has lost some of the identity that gave it its character and edge.
RR: In curating and selecting images, how many photos did you pore over to form this collection and how do you find that process — what are the emotions attached to going back through older works and re-viewing things?
JM: The body of work had sat dormant for the last 15 years, and the idea was always to present it as a book, the only question being ‘when’? I’m one of those people that isn’t very good at slowing down, so during lockdown last year, having a forced hiatus from commercial work, I had to do something with my time, so going back through older work seemed like a good option. It turned out to be a really productive time to work on projects that I’d never finished or had put on the back burner. I’ve produced four books over the years, and they all come with their own unique challenges. Books have always been my preferred way of showing my work in a longer form. Unlike an exhibition, which can be up for a few weeks and only seen by a small audience, the potential reach of a book excites me.
RR: Why monochrome – what does it offer over the presentation of colour?
JM: The photos began while I was at photography school and one of the main features of the TAFE course I signed up for was the allure of unlimited B&W film. This meant bulk loading film, storing it in my fridge at home and heading into the city on a daily basis.
In my first year at photography school, I actually failed the course due to a lack of attendance as I spent most of the time in the city shooting some of the work featured in the book. The irony is, whilst I failed the year, I also managed to win the award for ‘Most Film Used in a Year’. I had also been studying the work of some of the masters – Henri Cartier-Bresson, Josef Koudelka and Garry Winogrand, who’d all shot candid B&W work, so shooting in monochrome seemed like the logical pathway into documenting the world around me.
RR: You sometimes appear as a shadow or a reflection in your images. Where many photographers aim to avoid such, why are you seemingly happy to be captured, however minor?
JM: That’s often been a subtle feature my work and something I’ve never worried about. One of my favourite photographers of all time, Lee Friedlander, produced a whole book of self-portraits of himself out on the street, often appearing as just a subtle shadow or reflection within a broader scene.
RR: What’s the urban landscape offer & how frustrating can it be at times in regards to finding subjects or situations to shoot candidly?
JM: I love the uncertainty and endless possibilities of it. If I knew what I was going to be shooting every day, I’d have quickly bored of it years ago. There are days and weeks where I see nothing and accepting that is part of my creative process…
RR: You embrace the ‘not knowing’, the surprise …
JM: That’s right, the ‘not knowing’ part for me is the challenge — it’s a way of thinking and seeing and can be applied wherever I may be around the world. I have a few central stylistic themes that have always run through my work but the general idea, that I can leave the house one morning and come home with a photo that will become part of a bigger series, continues to drive and excite me.
RR: At what age did you first pick up a camera and what was the initial allure and was it immediate?
JM: I first started taking photos as an eight-year-old boy. My uncle gave me a book called ‘Subway Art’ which documented the NYC subway graffiti scene. My parents have always been very supportive of my interest in the arts. They’ve owned a small women’s fashion shop in Melbourne called Blonde Venus for 40 years. My mum designs the clothes and dad runs the business and sells them. So, in the mid 1980’s when I was eight and had been given the graffiti book, something was triggered inside me. I began taking photos [with my mum’s camera] of the first wave of graffiti walls that began appearing around Melbourne. I’d go out with my mum on weekends and school holidays searching for walls, and I’d jump out of the car and shoot photos. I’ve been looking to publish this series as a book and it will hopefully be my next book project. 35 years later, I’m still as inspired as ever.
RR: What do you feel distinguishes your work from others categorised as ’street photographers’?
JM: That’s a tricky question. I feel my work has evolved over the last 20 years from initially being inspired by the classics, and shooting B&W, to finding more of my own voice. In my more recent work, I find myself looking for a combination of strong colour, a sense of design and a human or graphic element.
RR: That moniker, ’street photographer’, has that arguably been cannibalised and overused the past decade?
JM: It’s certainly become a big thing in the last 15 years. When I started off in 1997, the idea of just walking around with a camera and looking for random photos on the street didn’t have any particular name to it and there certainly weren’t many people practising it. Seeing another photographer out on the street was a rare thing. Nowadays, it’s quite the opposite. In 2000, the first online street photographers collective was formed and I was lucky enough to join them in 2001. In the last 10 years, the street photography genre has grown in so many ways. I’ve lost count of the number of online collectives and festivals are happening around the world now brands and camera companies have embraced the genre and term ‘Street Photography’, as have book publishers. It’s always been such an accessible form of photography — you don’t need a tripod, model, studio, fancy lights — so I’ve seen its growth and popularity really sky rocket in the time I’ve been a part of the scene.
RR: 2020 and the various COVID-enforced lock-downs must have been arduous for a photographer who roams like you do?
JM: Having my commercial work put on hold for that period certainly had its challenges. I tried to stay positive and focused on what I could still do — that meant daily drives to the shops after homeschooling my two children, just to get out there and shoot a bit. However, the time off gave me the opportunity to produce the book and also recommence my street posters, which I had dabbled with back in the mid-2000s.
RR: You sometimes instruct and take ‘classes’ as part of Leica’s Akademie – what are the main tips you impart to those wanting to take a decent picture?
JM: Yes, I’ve been a Leica ambassador for the last six years and regularly run workshops via the Akademie. There are a couple of shooting approaches I try to teach people if they are starting off on the street and it mainly focuses on building confidence. For the more advanced shooters that come along, I really try to help them refine their vision and build their own sense of visual consistency.
Second City is available now, $75; jessemarlow.com