Adam Marelli first got into photography during university, when he needed an efficient way to collect moments for his paintings and sculptures. He says that a camera made more sense than lugging around an easel or notebook. For years he struggled to truly define and describe his work with the camera. It wasn’t documentary, nor travel. It was something different. So he set to work finding that definite description and methodology for what he shot. Taking his cues from the scientific community, where “Cultural Anthropology” is a field of study, he came up with Cultural Photography because he was interested, specifically, in culture and not simply “vanishing cultures”. He describes Cultural Photography as follows:
Cultural photography looks at the relationships between a culture’s beliefs, traditions, practices, population, history, location, and the ways in which those influences are visually expressed. The subject matter of cultural photography is the visual expression of culture and can include; people, architecture, objects, tools, and ceremonies of both daily life and high practices. It looks at each culture and its visual expression individually, without making a comparative study. The methodology applied to cultural photography is a combination of fieldwork (both observational and experiential), off-site research, and shared practice between the photographer and the culture being photographed. In order for cultural photography to function it requires that the individual photographer has a working knowledge gained through hands-on experience, apprenticeship, or professional practice in the arena they are covering. (This differs from embedded photo-journalists who serve with combat units but are not themselves trained military operators, as an example.) Observational knowledge gained by “side by side” witnessing is more easily classified as documentary photography, which places emphasis on objectivity, a search for truth, and candid photography of a particular subject. Cultural photography is interested in the personal viewpoints of the culture and the photographers who create images of the culture.
Adam spent years as the student of a Zenk monk as well as apprenticing with a master builder. He reflects back on this time as an apprentice, stating that those years allowed for branches of interest to merge seamlessly. He’s always had an interest in how things are made and why humans are driven to create. After art school, he became a professional builder for over a decade, during which he started visiting a Zen monastery. As an exchange for teaching younger monks how to maintain the building, two older monks taught Adam how to meditate. This opened up a world of experience, patience, and focus.
His passion for craftsmanship stems from a trip to Italy as a 12-year old. As a New Jersey native, he often felt his world ordinary, stepping into a church in Bergamo he was baffled. He describes it like stepping into an M.C. Escher drawing. This urge to understand how to build churches and temples became a driving force in his life.
His urge to document craftsmen is simply driven by his ever-growing will to know things. By photographing this series he continuously works through the process of not knowing to knowing. With his work he leaves a path for others to enjoy and bare witness to his journey. His past as a builder helps him relate to his subjects. Generally, craftsmen and women are shy and dislike having their picture taken, let alone having visitors. Instead of waltzing in like journalists, demanding unnatural poses or cutting something again, Adam engages them in conversations that make them feel like they are talking to a peer. The craftsmen are allowed to do their honest work, without the pretense of a performance, while Adam shoots. He often revisits his past subjects, to bring them a few prints or simply to catch up on current projects. He’s deeply passionate about these people, often he’s spent years with them. Seen them marry, have children, sometimes even pass away. He says, “It is a part of my soul at this point and imagining photography without them is impossible”.
Adam shoots with the Leica M240, he enjoys the camera’s simplicity. “From an M6, to M9, to M240 and next an M10-P I never need waste time re-learning the tool”. The screen has proven to be incredibly practical on the job, he says that when he can make someone look better than they see themselves, something magical happens. The subject opens up and, as much as he loves film, the immediacy of digital has helped him a lot. Many of his craftsmen subjects know Leica and think of it as a well-built tool. Often, they even have their own family stories that relate to Leica. Tools are important to people who build things, though craftsmen value tools, they don’t get overwhelmed by them.
Adam’s work usually takes him away from home, which is why he needs to carry all of his gear. In the past, he’s shot medium format but he prefers a lighter load. A Leica M, three lenses, and a Gitzo traveler tripod fit perfectly into the camera bag he designed for himself. His typical kit consists of a 35mm Summicron f/2.0, 50mm Summicron f/2.0, and a 90mm Summarit f/2.5. He’s had the good fortune of shooting just about every lens in the Leica line up, which allowed him to capture the world of craftsmen and women with enough variety to convey the experience. He says that Summicrons have a warmth, which works well for environmental portraits.
He is currently working on a book called “Picture This: A roadmap for photographers and their creativity”, which is set to publish in December 2018. The book is a strategic look at the creative process that speaks specifically to photographers. It is the result of many photographers coming to him, wanting to develop their own style, explore creativity, understand the visual language, but not knowing where to begin. They say they have no education in art and can’t figure out how to be creative. So, after 20 years of being a practicing artist and shooting people who create for a living, Adam decided to put all of his knowledge into a book, available both as an ebook and hardcover, to answer the question he gets all the time. “What do you look for when you take a picture”?
This is not the only time he’s taught, Adam also regularly hosts photography workshops. Though at first, he was resistant to the idea, he didn’t like the thought of himself as a tour guide, he came around to workshops to great results, because humans want to get beyond the tourist facade of travel and because they want to meet real people. Often they’re simply not sure how to go about that. In his workshops, he teaches the hows and whys of shooting in a dedicated location, and how to approach different cultures. The student photographers enjoy themselves by shooting in places they might otherwise not have access to, and Adam feels like he’s leading a small expedition. Instead of an artificial tour, it becomes an organic thing, the result of which is always a surprise.
Using his experience and the approach of craftsmen, Adam recently designed the A\M Camera Bag with the British company Chapman Bags. He took apart the classic shoulder bag and re-built it from scratch. Each fabric and every detail was tweaked. “The goal was to design a bag that could pull triple duty: a camera bag, a carry on, and a daily carry. But once you take the padding out of most bags they make no sense”. The response has been great so far. The bags will soon be available at B&H Photo, Leica Store Miami, Leica Store Soho, and Leica China.
When asked about offering advice to fellow photographers, Adam’s approach is simple: “Figure out what makes you unique. You have a distinct life experience that no one else can duplicate. It needs to come through in the work. If you feel like you have figured out why your work gives your purpose and meaning, then ask yourself the really tough question ‘Why should anyone else care?’”.
He says that opening his eyes to the curiosity of craftsmen and the patrons that support their work radically shifted how he viewed photography and led to unexpected discoveries. Others would be smart to follow suit.