“Street photography is something that can’t be rushed or forced,” says Australian photographer Jesse Marlow. Consequently, the series about his home town of Melbourne speaks of patiently searching, finding and waiting for the right moment. His compositional images of coincidences combine colourful, graphic scenery with a touch of human life.
A book about graffiti led you to start taking photos. How did it all begin?
My uncle gave me the book Subway Art for my 8th birthday, and it triggered something in me. I spent the next ten years going out on weekends and during school holidays, capturing the first wave of graffiti walls that began appearing around Melbourne in the mid eighties. Back in 1996, when I was 18, I stopped shooting graffiti and went off to photography school, where I discovered the work of Cartier Bresson, Robert Frank and Josef Koudelka. It opened my eyes to the broader medium of photography, and changed my life. Those formative years, being out on the street with a camera and exploring my home city with the curious eyes of a kid, laid the foundations for the photographer I’ve become.
What is it that fascinates you about street photography?
I’ve always been drawn to the street and the element of surprise that it constantly offers up. Back when I was studying photography, I wasn’t interested in learning lighting or how to shoot still-lifes or portraits. All I wanted to do was explore my home town. I’ve always lived and worked in Melbourne, so the majority of my work over the years has been shot there. However, over the last ten years I’ve found myself travelling a lot more, so my work has naturally taken on a broader backdrop.
To what extent are your pictures also a reflection of Australia – and to what extent are they, as it were, “placeless”?
The idea of a particular location being showcased has never been a key feature in my work. I’ve tried to avoid shooting photos that clearly depict a particular place by avoiding recognisable landmarks or signage. I like the idea that these photos could be taken anywhere and have a “placeless” sense to them.
Your photographs seem like puzzles, assembled from several compositional pieces, always photographed with a geometric approach…
That puzzle analogy really sums up my approach well. With some of the more static scenes I encounter, I do really labour over the composition, and it’s often with the fourth or fifth attempt at looking at a scene, that the picture finally reveals itself. I love it when this happens, and it does feel like the final piece to a puzzle being slotted in place. Form and geometry have always played a big part in the colour work I’ve shot over the last 15 years. Without letting it take over, it’s something I’m certainly conscious of when out and about shooting. I had initially wanted to be a graphic designer, so graphics and architecture have really played a part in the photographer I’ve become. With his playful sense of scale and his use of colour and shape, the Australian painter Jeffrey Smart was a major influence. Furthermore, I think that hanging out at my parent’s clothing design studio as I grew up, and being surrounded by amazingly unique, colourful and graphic Japanese fabrics, also helped shape the photographer I’ve become.
According to which point of view do you search and find your motifs?
The majority of the photos I’ve taken over the last 15 years have been shot while I’ve been out and about on my daily routine. I find this to be a more organic way of working, which in turn relieves some of the pressure and expectation around coming home with results. Street photography is something that can’t be rushed or forced. I keep a really open mind to the possibilities, but I also have some different themes that run through my work. I’ve found having a couple of smaller themes can be a beneficial thing for a street photographer, as there are sometimes days, weeks and even months where you aren’t feeling that inspired.
The compositional nature of your shots suggests that your images are staged…
They are all coincidences and nothing is staged. I’m quite deliberate with my composition and strive for photos that combine some kind of colourful, graphical scene, and when a human element enters the frame things start to work for me. There’s often a lot of waiting and hoping when I do come across a scene that has potential; and that’s the fun (and sometimes frustrating) part of the work I shoot. More often than not I come home with nothing, but the days when things do come together photographically, make it well worth while.
You have photographed with the Leica Q. Please speak about your experience with the camera; what do you appreciate about it in particular?
The Q/Q2 is the only camera I’ve used for personal work since its release back in 2015. It’s everything I need in a camera and hasn’t left my side in all that time. What I’ve always loved about the Q/Q2 is how simple and straightforward it is to use. I’m one of those photographers who likes to be in total control and keep things simple. I had been an M6 shooter for a number of years before shooting with the Q, and for me it was a really easy switch. As I regularly exhibit my work, having the added megapixels in a camera so small, quiet and unobtrusive, is everything I need.
Although human beings are visible in your pictures, they often only seem to play a small part, to disappear in the environment…
I’ve always enjoyed observing how people inhabit or move through a space and, through my interest in architecture and design, it’s something I’ve tried to incorporate into my work. Having always worked on documentary projects alongside my street work, the idea of having a subtle narrative within each of my street photos is also present. It can often be just a subtle hint of the human form within a broader picture, giving the scene a sense of scale. When colour, form, shape, light and an interesting human element come together within a scene, that’s when I know I have a picture.
Your series is called Anything can happen – and probably will. Is this motto also the motivation behind your photography?
It’s a title that I came across while reading a book one day, and I thought it perfectly summed up my approach to my ongoing work. I love the uncertainty of street photography, and if I knew what I was going to be shooting tomorrow, I would’ve become bored with shooting on the street. The fact that I can leave the house one morning and come home with a photo that will be with me forever, excites and continues to drive me. Looking back at the last 20 months globally, I think the title also really reflects the unknown position the world has found itself in due to Covid-19.
Jesse Marlow is an award-winning, Melbourne-based photographer. His work is held in public and private collections across Australia, including the National Gallery of Victoria. Over the last 18 years he has published a number of monographs, including the latest one, Second City. In 2011 he received the International Street Photographer of the Year Award, and in 2012 he won the Monash Gallery of Art’s Bowness Prize. Marlow has been profiled in many books, including Street Photography Now and The World Atlas of Street Photography, published by Thames & Hudson. Marlow is represented by Institute Artists. Find out more about his photography on his website and Instagram channel.