JESSE MAR­LOW

AN EYE FOR THE AB­SURD

ProPhoto - - FRONT PAGE - In­ter­view by Dave Ta­con.

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.”

Cre­at­ing Op­por­tu­ni­ties

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.”

Tak­ing Risks

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.”

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