AN EYE FOR THE ABSURD
Grabbed opportunities while travelling to and from commercial and editorial assignments has enabled Jesse Marlow to pursue his passion for street photography with considerable success.
On a chilly afternoon in the early spring of 2011, Melbourne photographer Jesse Marlow (left) took up a position on the corner of Blackburn and Ferntree Gully Roads in suburban Clayton with his Leica rangefinder camera at the ready. His eye for the uncanny had chosen a fish-and-chips shop to stake out due to its windows’ unusual ray-like white and blue graphics splotched with black spray paint.
“During daily travels, I make mental notes of different backdrops and what time of day things will look better,” Jesse explained over coffee recently in Port Melbourne. “I had seen the shop from my car, but I went back out there when I knew the sun would be hitting the window.”
Ten uneventful minutes passed until an old lady, her head covered in a shawl, shuffled past Jesse to post a letter.
“I took two shots as she was walking through and two as she was walking back the other way from a post box. The angles kind of came together for the first with the lines coming from her eyes. It was a nice surprise when I got the film processed. I didn’t plan to shoot it like that: it was just a happy accident.”
Jesse Marlow’s resulting image, titled Laser Vision, took out one of Australia’s most prestigious art awards, the $25,000 Bowness Prize the following year. Now this “happy accident” is the opening image in the photographer’s latest book, Don’t Just Tell Them, Show Them.
The work is a culmination of ten years and around 2000 rolls of Fujifilm Superia ISO 400 colour print film distilled down to just 50 images. The work signals a departure from his previous books Centre Bounce (2003), a photo essay of outback Australian Rules Football; and Wounded (2005), a series of light-hearted observations of people nursing injuries in everyday life, both shot on black and white film.
“I was looking for some more abstraction in my work, so I started shooting colour. It opened my eyes to different visual experiences. I was looking at painting more than I was looking at photography for inspiration too. I think I’d looked at as much photography work as I could up until then and I needed something different to look at. I really got into Jeffrey Smart’s work a lot… Edward Hopper and also Howard Arkley for his Melbourne suburban scenes.”
Humour And Whimsy
The play between light and shadow, bold primary colours, compositional precision and inspiration from Melbourne suburbia is indeed a nod to Smart,
Hopper and Arkley, but what Jesse Marlow adds to these influences is humour and whimsy – six burly workmen in dirty high visibility gear, carry a glass pane, each with an arm aloft, hand outstretched on the invisible glass as if engaged in a bizarre interpretive dance; a Christ-like, bare- chested sunbather floats on a green lawn, oblivious to a lone, ominous sacred ibis stalking nearby; a hunched over old man appears to flee a tram emblazoned with mocking young faces.
Although Jesse won the inaugural International Street Photography Prize in London in 2011, it is an oversimplification to label him just a street photographer. Many of the images in Don’t Just Tell Them, Show Them were purely opportunistic – shot en route and in between the commercial and editorial assignments that are the core of his livelihood as a professional photographer. Much of this work is starkly different in
nature to Jesse’s personal street photography, such as his regular portrait commissions for Fairfax Media business titles such as BOSS and the Australian Financial Review. Rather than natural light and a Leica M6 with a 35mm lens, this work is shot with Nikon D700 or D800 D-SLRs, a variety of Nikon lenses and an Elinchrom Ranger kit with two flash heads.
“If I’m shooting commercially and driving down to Torquay to take someone’s portrait for a magazine, I’ve got my film camera with me and I’m on the lookout. Some weeks I can shoot two or three rolls and other times, depending on my workload, film can sit in the camera for a couple of weeks… I don’t really set time aside to shoot [street photography]. If I do, I’m putting myself under more pressure and limiting myself.”
Yet Jesse’s street photography opportunities are more than mere accidental encounters. His success lies in a unique photographer’s awareness combined with well-honed technical skills. Artistry aside, business acumen is an essential element of a successful commercial photographer and Jesse Marlow has cannily used his books of personal work as a marketing tool to put his work in front of top art directors, editors and curators. Certainly, this has not been a strategy without risk; especially as he has often co-funded books with his own personal savings. In the case of Wounded, co-produced with a British design firm, this was to the tune of £4500 (close to $11,000 in 2005). Keeping with this tradition, funds from the Bowness Prize were invested in Don’t Just Tell Them, Show Them.
“Having always shot film for my personal work and then being put out on the street to take my own personal pictures, but for a commercial client with a digital camera, was a really great experience.”
In the lead up to his book launch in March this year, around 100 of the initial print run of 1000 copies were distributed as direct marketing. The remainder will be sold in roughly a 50/50 split between independent book shops and the photographer’s Website.
Certainly in the case of Jesse’s previous books, direct marketing has created great opportunities; not least in his inclusion in the 2006 Joop Swart Masterclass in Amsterdam. He was granted entry largely on the strength of Wounded which had also screened the Reportage festival prior to publication. Wounded, intriguingly presented in a plaster slipcase, was at the forefront of a portfolio sent to photographer and critic, Robert McFarlane and photographer Phil Quirk, the men responsible for nominating Australian photographers for the Joop Swart Masterclass that year. This prestigious workshop organised by World Press Photo brings together 12 promising photographers with experienced and renowned photojournalism professionals. Other Australian photographers to have participated include the multi award-winning Stephen Dupont (a participant in the inaugural workshop in 1994), Trent Parke (later to become Australians only Magnum member) in 2001; Trent’s wife, the two-time World Press Photo first prize recipient Narelle Autio in 2004, Ashley Gilbertson (Robert Capa Gold Medal winner and recent inductee into VII agency) in 2005; and in 2010, Adam Ferguson who won the World Press Photo first prize in the Spot News category the same year. Jesse Marlow is currently on the masterclass’s selection committee. The workshop proved vital in providing direction for the long term project that would become Don’t Just Tell Them, Show Them.
“Still to this day, the advice from the masterclass is the best I’ve been given. My project was only twoyears-old and I was able to show my first 20 pictures to Lesley Martin [publisher of the book program at Aperture Foundation]. She was really encouraging and could see a sense of style coming through.
“One of the things I was taught at the masterclass was to help build a sense of visual authorship by shooting with the same lens – if the subject permits, of course – when shooting a project. When I showed
Lesley my footy book, the first thing she said after looking at 20 pages was, ‘It looks like it’s been taken by all of these different photographers. There’s too much of a shift from the distance you’re shooting from’. That was really advice that I took into this book, just to get the one look so it flowed visually.”
One aspect of the masterclass that took Jesse Marlow outside his comfort zone, was a requirement to shoot a body of work based around a single word, ‘risk’.
“I had a couple of ideas, but three months… The projects I do are usually three years, so the pressure was on. Looking back, I should have done something more based around street photography which is where I was taking my work. Instead, I focused on Alice Springs which had linked back to the football book. I went back to what I knew a bit about because I thought it would work well in that international environment: to show an international audience a part of Australia that was not really well publicised. I shot a body of work that was I was happy with, but the time period makes it hard.”
Upon the completion of his masterclass assignment, Jesse returned to Amsterdam to discuss his work with the other participants and masters and co-curate an exhibition of the work. “It’s a great opportunity for the photographers and I think the masters get a lot from it as well, learning from the students.”
The masterclass led to a scholarship at the Benetton’s Fabrica just outside Milan. Jesse used the opportunity to travel through Europe at leisure and hit a rich vein of inspiration that yielded a fifth of the images in Don’t Just Show Them, Tell Them.
Occasionally, Jesse must deal with the issue of replicating the style of his personal work – which has such a long gestation period – for commercial clients with inflexible deadlines. One assignment, which came on the back of the International Street Photography Prize, was to shoot an international advertising campaign for a new Panasonic point and shoot camera, the Lumix LX-1.
“Despite the two week time-frame I really enjoyed it. Having always shot film for my personal work and then being put out on the street to take my own personal pictures, but for a commercial client with a digital camera, was a really great experience. I experimented much more and didn’t put it up to my eye. I also experimented more with exposure than what I would with my film cameras. I’d always shot in daytime and there was a particular look – no night shots. So shooting with a digital for the commercial project opened my eyes. Personal work has fed into my commercial work and vice versa. They feed each other.”