If you’re a collector of the classic photographic books by photographers like Sebastaio Salgado, Alex Webb, Jealoup Sieff, Eugene Smith, Vivian Mair, etc etc, you may just overlook a photographer like Jesse Marlow, and that would be a big mistake!
I’ll state it from the very beginning. This is a very subjective review, because Jesse is one of my personal friends. In fact, Jesse was the very first street photographer I ever noticed, met and admired. We met about 15 years ago in a camera store when he was buying film in Melbourne. After a short time I had acquired all his books, and feeling inspired, took to the streets with a newfound enthusiasm for capturing life in a way that’s not only true to the moment, but in a way that is somewhat surreal. So to say Jesse had a big influence on my style of photography, well, that would be a big understatement.
Not only did Jesse’s influence give me a newfound way of seeing things, he also helped me land my first job as a photographer at the local Leader newspaper. For that I am very grateful and owe my career to Jesse, who vouched for me at a time in my life where I really needed a positive change. To this day, Jesse is still the photographer I look to for inspiration, guidance and support with my own work. Most importantly, Jesse is not a new-generation kid that just picked up a camera and made his fame based on imitation and building followers through social networking. Most importantly, he does not stage or setup his pictures in any way. His pictures are honest and in line with editorial standards. Jesse is also an original member of In-Public, which is a group of the world’s elite ‘professional’ street photographers – you could also describe them as the ‘Magnum’ version of the Street Photography genre. My point is that Jesse earned his name and reputation solely on hard work and dedication to the street photography code.
From the very beginning Jesse has always been a documentary photographer. The label ‘street photographer’ came later as the term evolved into a term used for those who are dedicated to documenting life in city streets. As a day job Jesses works with the Financial Review in Melbourne shooting portraits. Needless to say they are a very different style to what Jesse is used to shooting on the street. Below is a rare street portrait taken by Jesse, who prefers to photograph his subjects naturally without his presence affecting the situation.
Previously, Jesse’s monochrome work was focused on people in a city environment, often appearing quirky and surreal in nature. There are many forms of street photography, and Jesse’s is more of a documentary style that emphasises the connection between people and their environment. This work often requires compositions that have a lot of negative space surrounding the subject(s), and Jesse is the master of this technique. Quirky contrasts, obscure moments and witty compositions of frame elements challenge the viewer to question his pictures, his motivations and his experience. With all the mystery, one thing is for sure – Jesse loves to keep us guessing!
Jesse’s previous book ‘Wounded’, compiled a series of random moments of the street of people or things that have been wounded. The collection of these pictures truly showcases Jesse’s commitment to his craft through smart observation, careful planning and plenty of patience.
FROM MONOCHROME TO COLOUR
In 2004, at the age of 25 and in need of a fresh challenge, Jesse decided to shoot his pictures exclusively in colour as he felt it would be good for his work development. To progress Jesse knew he needed to challenge himself and colour posed several new challenges for him, including:
- Search for bold colours and strong light, where this was of lesser importance when shooting in monochrome.
- Shooting time and amount of pictures was reduced due to weather restrictions that affect colour more so than monochrome.
- Less processing control with colour over monochrome.
- Staying motivated over a 10-year commitment.
For a photographer dedicated to black and white photography this was a major step out of his comfort zone, and even I was a little concerned – but at the same time excited to see what this master could do with another element that can either make or break a potentially great picture.
Armed with a Leica M6/35mm lens and Fuji Superior 400 ISO negative film, Jesse took to the suburban streets of various countries (mostly Melbourne, Australia and Europe) to endeavour into this new realm of storytelling. While the traditional documentary photographer will focus on a series of related pictures to tell one story, Jesse’s goal is to tell a story with only one picture. Both styles have their own levels of difficulty, but it could be argued that the street photographer relies a little more on luck than the traditional documentary photographer, and faces the challenge of having enough information to create interest, but not too much that all the details are revealed. The one advantage with shooting in colour is that ‘colour’ details can assist by communicating and evoking feelings in the viewer, where in monochrome such details would be ignored or lost.
After an early adjustment period Jesse’s style started to adapt to colour and the body of work began to take shape. The battle lied with finding a balance between content-driven work with monochrome and colour-driven work with colour film.
On March 19, 2014 Jesse Launched his first book in colour and it’s a marvellous showcase of the last 10 years of hard work and dedication to his craft. The outer hard cover in bright ‘safety yellow’ jumps out at you and was published by M.33 and edited down to 50 solid images by Helen Frajman. The quality of the book is very solid and every picture is placed on the right hand-side page. This was done intentionally as each picture was designed to stand-alone with no relationship to each other – each pictures carries its own story.
The book is an absolute delight, filled with random pictures that propel Jesse’s work even further – all in high quality print. What I first noticed about the pictures was that for the first time, many of them did not have a human being in the frame. Previously, Jesse’s work was heavily focused on the human figure, and Jesse says that while this is the case, there is always a trace of human element in his new work. He loves the banality of everyday existence, and a picture doesn’t always need to be so obvious in showing the human figure to tell the story. With these pictures alone, you can see very clearly how Jesse has used colour to further develop his work to the next level.
Another notable observation about this book is that none of the pictures are taken in locations that feature recognisable landmarks. Jesse says this is intentional as a way of differentiating this work from the typical travel/street photography that is all too common, and it also serves to depict a sense of mystery. Jesse aims to have the viewer make their own conclusions, and prefers them to have more questions than answers.
INSIDE THE BOOK – 9 images
Well I did tell you it was going to be a subjective review, and most importantly, I hope you liked it and LOVED the pictures. Jesse's work is honest to the moment and to his viewers – something rare to appreciate these days. If you’re interested in the book, you can purchase it here on Jesse Marlow’s website. If you have any questions or comments you would like to make please feel free to do so below.