Based in Melbourne, Australia, Jesse Marlow is an accomplished street and commercial photographer whose works are held in public and private collections in Australia and around the world. Images from his two books have been and he published worldwide and he has received numerous awards and honors, including being named the International Street Photographer of the Year in 2011. Here is is the captivating story of his evolution as a photographer and list latest street photography project in Melbourne shot just prior to the release of the new high-performance compact Leica Q.
Q: What camera and equipment do you generally use?
A: For my personal work I’ve used a Leica M6 exclusively for the last 12 years. I’ve recently been shooting on the street with the digital Leica Q and love it. The images in this portfolio were shot with the new compact, full-frame Leica Q.
Q: How would you describe your photography?
A: My main passion is street photography. Over the years, however, I have worked on long term documentary projects alongside my ongoing street work.
Q: Were you a serious enthusiast before becoming a professional, and what made you decide to go pro?
A: I’ve been taking photographs since I was a young child. Straight after finishing high school I studied photography at a Melbourne photography school for a couple of years before moving straight into the industry. My personal projects have always been shot alongside my commercial career.
Q: When did you first become interested in photography as a mode of expression, an art form, or as a profession?
A: As previously mentioned, I began taking photos at a very young age. I was given a book about the New York Subway Graffiti scene called ‘Subway Art’ by my uncle for my 8th birthday and as a result I began shooting photos of the Melbourne graffiti walls. I’ve always enjoyed being out on the street with a camera and shot these graffiti photos until I was 18. Upon starting photography school and seeing the work of some of the masters I quickly realized there was more to photography and the street then just walls-:)
Q: Did you have any formal education in photography, with a mentor, or were you self-taught? Was there a photographer or type of photography that influenced your work or inspired you?
A: At my photography school we were lucky enough to have a very inspiring lecturer named Reimund Zunde who was an accomplished Melbourne photographer himself. He ran a photojournalism class in the course and I remember his showing us HCB, Alex Webb and Josef Koudelka’s work. This really opened my eyes and inspired me to get out on the street and start shooting in that style.
Q: In what genre or genres, if any, would you place your photos?
A: A large component of my work is my personal street photography, which is all candid and mostly shot on the streets of my hometown—Melbourne. I still shoot long-term documentary projects around topics and issues that interest me.
Q: How did you first become interested in Leica?
A: As my understanding of photography grew in my earlier years, I quickly learned that the Leica was such a useful tool for the type of work I wanted to shoot. I was shooting a series on Melbourne’s busiest railway station back in the late 90s and working in big crowded areas, so I needed a camera that was quiet, quick, and unobtrusive. The Leica was a must. I began with an M4P with no light meter and this really helped my photography develop as I was forced to learn how to quickly evaluate the light within a scene. A few years later I switched to the M6 and have continued to use that camera right up until today.
Q: What approach do you take with your photography or what does photography mean to you?
A: It’s what I’ve always done and love. I love the uncertainty of street photography. The element of the unknown is what drives and excites me.
Q: Aside from the obvious advantages of small size and discreet, quiet operation, what are some of the features and characteristics of the Leica M6 that make it especially suitable for your kind of work. Also which lenses do you typically shoot with and what film or films did you use to capture the images in this portfolio?
A: I’ve always loved the simplicity of the Leica camera design. I’m not interested in cameras with fancy buttons and features, so the M6 has always suited my style and work perfectly. The ‘Don’t Just Tell Them, Show Them’ series, which was shot over a 9-year period, was all shot on the M6. I shot the whole series with a 35mm f/2 Summicron ASPH lens on Fuji Superia 400 film.
Q: Many of the images in this portfolio do indeed fall into the street photography genre but there are many others that could be called abstract art images that rely on strong graphic composition and striking and somewhat jarring juxtapositions. Do you agree, and why did you include them in this portfolio? By the way, where were this images shot, or were they captured at a variety of different locations?
A: The series was shot on the streets of Melbourne over the course of 1 week in the lead up to the release of the Leica Q. When I’m shooting on the street, I’m often drawn to simple graphic/abstract scenes that create an isolated backdrop within a built up urban environment. Then it can be a case of waiting and hoping for some kind of human element to enter the scene. All of my photos are candid and unplanned.
Q: In addition to doing street photography in your hometown, can you tell us which long-term documentary projects you have pursued, what topics and issues hold a special interest for you, and also what inspired to create the Melbourne Railway project you were shooting in the late ‘90s?
A: My series on Melbourne’s busiest railway station, Flinders St Station, began, as always, where I started and ended; my street photography journeys. Up until this point I had always wanted to be a photojournalist but the more I shot on the streets of my hometown, the more I realized I felt most comfortable sitting on the steps of the station watching people navigate their way through and around the platforms. Separate to my street photography I’ve always had a strong interest in indigenous Australians and their culture. I photographed a long-term series documenting the importance Australian Rules Football plays on outback communities. Shooting the project about the football culture exposed me to other aspects of indigenous culture, which I’ve since shot as various documentary projects.
Q: According to your bio, you published your first book of photographs, “Centre Bounce: Football from Australia’s Heart” in 2003, and a book of street photographs entitled “Wounded” in 2005. Presumably the first book was about football, which we call soccer in the USA, but what was the focus of this work? Also why did you give your second book the provocative title “Wounded” and how would you characterize the images in it?
Yes, ‘Centre Bounce: Football from Australia’s Heart’ was my series about the importance of the game of Australian Rules football. Our national game of football is different from soccer, and it’s played in remote desert indigenous communities from the North of Australia. ‘Wounded’ was a documentary street photography project I spent a couple of years shooting in the mid 2000’s. After I injured my arm and was unable to shoot for a few weeks, I began to see other people out on the street going about their daily routines in similar situations. Everywhere I went for 2 years, I came across injured people with visible superficial injuries. They were everywhere–the beach, the market, the football field, city streets, etc. The project was a light-hearted look at how resilient humans are despite suffering injuries. We fall over but get back up…
Q: You are listed as a member of both the international street photographers collective in-public.com and also M.33, Melbourne. What is the character these organizations and how do they fit in with making your work available to other photographer and enhancing or deepening your creative process?
A: M.33 is small collective of Australian photographers and they represent me for print sales and published my latest book ‘Don’t Just Tell Them, Show Them.’ In-public.com is an online street photography collective and was the first of it’s kind. It began in 2000 and I became a member in 2001 at age 23. The private online discussion board has been the place where members show new work to each other. For me, since I joined the group at such a young age, having such great photographers critique my work has really helped with my photographic development. Most importan, being a part of a group like in-public has meant I have a group of like minded photographic friends in all corners of the world.
Q: This image is certainly amusing and engaging, but also a little disconcerting because of the oblique perspective and the fact that it’s hard to be sure that the “opening” revealing the sky with clouds, towers, and a “man on a tightrope” is a real scene or a flat superimposed surface. Can you tell us what’s going on here and what you were thinking when you pressed the shutter release?
A: When I’m out on the street shooting, I’m looking for pictures that raise more questions than give answers. Photos that require a second look and stop you in your tracks, making you question the scene are what I strive for. Often, as in this particular scene, it’s a case of finding the right angle, which then helps to build the sense of ambiguity. Then it can be a case of being patient and waiting for that moment when things align to help build the sense of mystery. In this shot, a man was abseiling down a building front. The line dissecting the frame is an overhead power line and the glass that runs across the top is a tram shelter. It was simply a matter of finding an angle that created an interesting and playful composition.
Q: This is a masterful composition of forms, textures, and colors, but what really makes it special, aside from the bright sunlit surfaces highlighted against a dark sky, is the shadow of a person leaning against a railing that’s projected on a bright curvilinear concrete surface. Where did you capture this captivating image, and why do you think makes it so compelling?
A: This particular image was taken in central Melbourne. I shot it while I was out with the camera crew filming the little video for the Leica Q. Whenever a film crew is tagging along there’s that extra bit of pressure to find a picture that will be part of the series. I was initially drawn to the saturated morning light hitting the wall and the shadow of the bridge. Then as it so often is when shooting on the street, it was a case of waiting and hoping for the right moment.
Q: This shot is just a lovely picture that captures the feeling of fall in the city. I note that it is also an oblique angle composition; do you think this is just the way you see things or is an element of your visual style. Finally please provide the tech data for this image including lens, exposure ISO, etc.?
A: There are a couple of places I know of in Melbourne where, every Autumn, little clusters of leaves form and start swirling around in circles as the wind bounces around of the skyscrapers. I try to keep my compositions clean and simple. Shooting from this angle was the obvious way to isolate the leaves and emphasis the atmospheric feel of the image. The image was shot with the 35mm frame crop at 1/15 sec at f/16.
Q: What makes this photograph so effective in capturing a mood and a sense of place is the very shallow depth of field that blurs all the background figures and overhead lights with a beautifully creamy bokeh. What lens and shooting aperture did you use to get this effect, and what is the actual subject of this engaging picture?
A: This was shot at the peak of morning rush hour and was at the traffic lights of Finders St. Station (Melbourne’s busiest train station). The beauty of shooting with the Leica Q was how quiet it was. I found myself shooting photos of people unaware from 2 feet away while they waited at the traffic lights. This particular image was shot at with the 50 mm frame crop at f/1.7.
Q: In a strange way the radial pattern of this reminds me of a Jackson Pollack painting. Although the feeling is quite different, the seeming randomness within a defined structure has a similar effect, and of course it is classic example of transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary. I assume the line of fluorescent lights going across the center of the frame over the silhouetted tree are reflections; is that correct? In any case how did you manage to see this image in your mind’s eye much less execute it so adeptly?
A: I keep a mental database of interesting walls and locations around Melbourne and I’ve had my eye on this row of windows for a while. It’s often a case of returning to a place when the light might improve a photo or when I have more time. What has always drawn me to this particular scene is the opportunity to capture a moment where nature and man-made collide, often in colorful graphic scenes. The windows are angled so they are picking up the reflection of the tree and the room is actually a basement so that’s why the fluorescent lights are at the level they are.
Q: Unlike the previous image, this shot looks more like an abstract expressionist painting of the mid 20th century. Do you concur, and does this in any sense represent a return to your “wall period” you previously alluded to? If so, is there anything about this image that is qualitatively different than your early street photography graffiti wall images?
A: There are definitely influences as a result of shooting the graffiti walls in childhood and through my teenage years. I think I’ve often been drawn to interesting colors, textures and patterns when I’m out on the streets. My parents and in particular my mother, have also helped shape my appreciation of color and geometry. My parents have owned a small ladies’ clothing store called Blonde Venus in Melbourne, for the last 40 years. My mother has designed the clothes and has always prided herself on finding unique, beautiful, colorful and geometric fabrics. Yes, this picture certainly has an expressionist feel.
Q: Do you plan to exhibit these images and others in this series at galleries in Australia or elsewhere, publish them as an online or in-print book, or perhaps offer fine art prints for sale? By the way, how do you print out your images for personal display or exhibition?
A: I regularly exhibit my work in Australia in group and solo exhibitions. There are no plans at the moment to exhibit my work with the Leica Q, but I’m loving working with it and have found it’s freed up my shooting, which had become a bit rigid of late. I normally print my work in editions of 10. All fine art prints of my work are available through M.33.net.au.
Q: How do you see your photography evolving over, say, the next three years, and do you plan to explore any other genres, subjects, or specific locations going forward? Do you have any projects in the works that you can talk about here?
A; I think the types of images I look for when I’m out shooting on the street have changed over the last 15 years. Incorporating abstract and geometric imagery into my work has become central to me as a photographer. For the past two years I’ve been working on a new long-term project of street photos that has seen me switch back to black-and-white. I found the type of colorful, graphic scenes I was searching for were beginning to limit my output. I’ve never been drawn to shooting in exotic locations or countries, but have just always shot wherever I happened to be.
Thank you for your time, Jesse!
– Leica Internet Team
Connect with Jesse on his website and Instagram.