Monday, May 31, 2021

That low hanging bar

The pandemic's grip is gradually loosening (at least in the U.S.). A few days ago I found myself in a real-life, nuts and bolts bookstore. Smith Family Books in downtown Eugene, to be specific. Their used photobook section had been a regular haunt in pre-pandemic times, but of course Covid, bla bla bla. You know the story. 

Aside from my mask it was just like old times at Smith. I can't say their selection had much changed from a year ago, but it hit me differently this visit. Tastes shift over many months. Some books which I'd previously ignored struck me with new interest. Meanwhile, others seemed less exciting now than before. After browsing for a little while I wound up coming home with two, Mark Klett's After The Ruins and Car Crashes & Other Sad Stories by Mell Kilpatrick. Both books discovered by chance and acquired together for about the price of a six pack. That's the sort of experience that's hard to replicate online. And trust me, I've tried.

As a comparison, I ordered Meg Hewitt's Tokyo Is Yours a few weeks ago. There aren't many people who live farther from me than Meg, and it's been entertaining to track her book's long meandering journey from Australia to Oregon. In fact it was in Eugene just this morning. Now it's in Springfield. Hmmm. I guess it's not quite ready to settle down yet.

Along the way I Shot Tokyo has made stops in Singapore, Vietnam, Korea, Anchorage, and Kentucky. Yikes, this book has traveled through all sorts of exciting places. I'm jealous. It's been a spectacular tour. But when these exotic locales are filed into a rote shipping list, they transform into something rather ordinary. 

Have I merely found the banal in the spectacular? If so, Car Crashes takes a similar tack. The book (with excellent printing, by the way) is a recent edit of lost work, the archive of a bygone photojournalist rediscovered by curator Jennifer Dumas decades later. This lost/reborn schtick is a recurring theme in photoland, but I haven't tired of it just yet. 

Mell Kilpatrick was a self-made autocrashdidact who bullied his way into a late career at the Santa Ana Register at age 47, simply by hanging around and obsessing. Soon enough he was head of their photo staff. From that point he became something of a regional Weegee, documenting the never ending stream of local accidents and crime scenes in 1950s Orange County. His pictures are in the same general ballpark as the great cigared one, and also Enrique Metinides. But they are rawer, gorier, and less consciously artsy than either. Kilpatrick shot police scenes more like a technician, pure kill shots recording blood, guts, and debris with the mechanical efficiency of an old school reporter. Just the facts: What, How, Where, Who, etc. Looking at his pictures at my kitchen table last night, it struck me that Kilpatrick had found banalities in the spectacular, like a book shipped around the world.

I think much of contemporary photography is headed in the opposite direction, away from spectacle. I could name some examples (such as this, this, thisthis, or this) but I'm sure you can think of your own favorites. The spectacular has long been vanquished in most photo quarters. The vernacular humdrum carries the day. One could trace it to back to New Topographers perhaps, or art schools, or maybe just general societal malaise. Who knows. Pandemic restrictions have only exacerbated the situation.

On a recent edition of his podcast A Small Voice host Ben Smith asked Bryan Schutmaat What advice should young photographers be leary of? Schutmaat noted that art photographers in MFA programs are commonly taught to avoid exotic/spectacular subject matter, and to focus instead on plain material found nearby. In other words, they're told to shoot like Robert Adams, not Ansel. In this brave new world spectacular car crashes might be far down the list, somewhere below a decrepit shop front or a blade of sidewalk grass. 

All well and good. But the potential problem with this approach according to Schutmaat, is that boring material can lead to boring photographs. How true! He cited Adams, John Gossage, and Paul Graham as tantalizing counter examples. All have photographed seemingly plain scenes, often in interesting ways. But of course those guys are exceptional. They make it seem easy, and most students attempting the same trick will get caught in the weeds. To convert the everyday into something noteworthy requires experience, and a measure of talent, and even then it's a challenge. So we're awash in boring photos—at least I feel that way most days—and it's hard to parse out the noteworthy.

I had a chance to shoot my own spectacular car crash a few months ago. I was driving home from Portland to Eugene one evening, the same drive I've done a thousand times, straight highway, 65 mph, enjoying some tunes. But this time was different. Just past Salem was a row of semi trucks backed up in the right lane, moving very slowly. By the time I saw them and slammed the brakes it was too late. 

People say time slows down during an accident, that your entire life passes through your eyes or whatever. That wasn't my experience. It all happened pretty fast. But there was a strange normality to the chain of events. Even as my van was slamming into the rear of the semi in front of me, part of my brain was observing patiently, as if it were just another daily event. Once again I'd stumbled on banality in the spectacular. 

If you've ever noticed that bar hanging down near the back tires of 18-wheelers, that's what stopped me from plowing straight under the trailer. Instead I came to a rather abrupt stop, my car in a heap. Airbag deployed, engine block totaled, the full deal. The good news is I was fine, and I don't think the semi-driver felt a thing. Maybe a mosquito-sized nudge. A few good Samaritans helped my car off the road, cops came, medics, a tow truck, etc. There was a routine quality to their actions which felt reassuring.

The pandemic has shifted all judgements about what is or isn't mundane. It's the most unusual event of my lifetime. I've never experienced anything remotely similar. Yet within just a few months of its onset, I had adjusted my mental compass. Social distancing and masks and quarantining felt, well, not quite normal. But they were part of the everyday fabric, no longer worth noticing. When things like that become routine, who knows any longer what is unusual and what is common? 

In 2019 I would have been very excited to see people in masks on public streets. A great photo op! How special!  That was then. Now I'll be happy if I never see another mask again. When all of this craziness is over I'm going to collect my mask stash in a pile (they now number a few dozen) and incinerate them. It should be spectacular.

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Q & A with Dan Shaffer

Dan Shaffer is a photographer based in Albuquerque, and the other of the recent book Joe Deal's Albuquerque Then & Now.

BA: Can you tell me briefly about your background in photography.

DS: I was fortunate to get an early start in photography, getting a Kodak Starflash camera in fourth grade in 1959. My father was always shooting and experimenting with different cameras. Much of my youth was in East Africa so wide open vistas were what I loved to photograph. I worked on the high school yearbook and college yearbook. My first job after college was as a pasteup artist at a printing company and then I became a freelance graphic designer for 10 years. I was never technically oriented so usually hired better photographers for projects like motorcycle billboards that I did for several years.

I’m tempted to ask about Kenya but probably should stay on topic. 

Yes, Kenya and Tanzania. I experienced the transition from colonial to independent countries and was taught to be comfortable in a mud hut or in an embassy function.

What brought your family to Africa? 

My grandparents spent their entire careers as Protestant missionaries in Kenya from 1925-1955. My dad was born and raised there and returned as a public health medical doctor so I spent most of my youth in East Africa, coming back to the US for college. I was drawn to New Mexico since it has a lot in common with East Africa —high altitude, blue skies, wide vistas, multicultural population, hot food, etc.

When did you first become interested in rephotographs?

My introduction to rephotography was with "Albuquerque Then & Now" by Mo Palmer and "New Mexico Then & Now" by William Stone and Jerold Widdison. I’ve always enjoyed contemporary rephotographyI suddenly realized there was a  project I could do like that. A friend introduced me to the New Topographics movement on Facebook which I have been following for a long time. That’s how I discovered the New Topographics exhibition in Rochester and the fact that several of the photographers were based in Albuquerque when they were at UNM getting graduate degrees. I moved here about the time they were here, Joe Deal and Nicholas Nixon in 1972. Nixon photographed the Boston area for the big show but Joe’s pictures were all local and I was fascinated and intrigued and determined to find and shoot them all and I have finally succeeded after about six months. I self published my own book with about a dozen of the pictures that I had found.

Did you know Joe Deal's pictures before discovering New Topographics?

No, I learned about the exhibit from the NT Facebook page. If I do a second edition I think I will include all 18 of Joe Deal's Albuquerque scenes from the New Topographics exhibit with my rephotography versions.

Which ones are in the first book?

Only the eleven locations I had found and just wanted to get this project into print. I have since located all eighteen Albuquerque scenes.

So the second edition would be the full Joe Deal rephotography book. 

Because of Covid I’m having trouble getting UNM at all interested in what I’m doing. I would think they might have some archives from his two periods at UNM for MA and MFA. Jim Stone is UNM photography professor emeritus who I gave a book to and may help me make some progress at UNM.

How did you go about finding the locations of Joe Deal’s pictures?

I could easily tell these shots were in Albuquerque but because the horizon line was cut off it was a little hard to locate them. I was puzzled how he got so high up above the homes he was shooting. I finally realized he had climbed boulders to achieve almost every single one of these shots. He was carrying a 2 1/4 camera on a tripod. I used a Lumix FZ 2500 with a mono pod which came in handy as a walking stick. The Sandia Mountains create a practically vertical western face at the edge of town and millions of enormous granite boulders have tumbled down over eons. It was a scramble to achieve the right viewpoint and sometimes I’d have to jump to the next boulder up or sideways. Not using the exact same lens as he did provided frustration. I could get the scene framed exactly in one corner but in the other opposite corner the composition might have changed. I didn’t worry too much about that variance though.

So all of the photos were from the same general part of town. The western edge near Sandia Mountains?

Yes. From about 5 miles north of interstate 40 to 1 mile south of interstate 40 where it emerges from the canyon. From the north it’s Glenwood Hills, Supper Rock, and Four Hills neighborhoods.

What do you think attracted him to that area? Was it the high vantage? Or maybe he lived nearby? Maybe it was a rapidly changing area?

The shots have the irony of the man altered landscape, just beginning in these neighborhoods in the mid-1970s. But his special touch was getting an elevated viewpoint. He more likely lived in the UNM area as most students did. This neighborhood seemed very far away at that time and now is surrounded by shopping centers and/or homes with very few empty lots.

You mentioned that you even tried to time your photos at the same time of day as him?

It’s not hard to get good lighting in New Mexico! But yes, I did try to go in the morning so the angle of light was similar. I was photographing in October, November, and December so it was never very hot. Don’t know when he was shooting. Another help in finding these locations was access to annual aerial surveys in the 1960s and 70s by Dick Kent, a local commercial photographer. I am volunteering to scan hundreds of his 4x5 negatives. He would fly from one edge of the city to the other on clear days, often on assignment for businesses.

Maybe you should rephotograph his pictures too, haha.

I will order a high altitude drone trying to rephotograph Dick’s aerials. 

Can’t tell if you’re joking? 

Joking. I don’t know if drones can fly that high. At least I wouldn’t have the expense of renting a plane for every aerial survey. I noticed Dick Kent usually chose clear days to avoid the black shadows clouds would cast on the land.

A Dick Kent photo is on the back cover of my book. Dick’s son was very encouraging. The father of a 60-year-old man who let me in one of these houses was in a photo that Joe took. 

Oh, that's amazing. The guy standing in his garage in the shadow, is that the man? That's on the only photo that seems to have a person in it

Right, hardly any people. That’s a NT thing. Yes, the man in his garage I think is the photo. 

Did he know about the Joe Deal photo of his house?

No, it was a surprise to him and I gave him and his 80-something mother a copy of the book. They have lived in the house since they built in 1968 and it looks the same as it did then I’ll bet. They offered to let another group that I belong to called Modern Albuquerque come in and photograph the interior. That group is fascinated with mid century modern architecture, interior and exterior. I am more interested in documenting the world than in creating fine art.


I think I read a quote from you on your blog describing the difference in photographers who think about what they are going to shoot before they shoot as opposed to those who shoot what they see on their walks. 

Everyone has their own way of doing things. For me the photographs are always first. If I get ahead of them, I wind up in trouble. Photos are a continual source of information and new leads and entertainment. They have a lot to offer already, without me and my thoughts getting in their way.

I like that attitude. Except when I am rephotographing then I do think in advance about what I’m going to shoot.

I don't know Albuquerque at all. But if it's like any other western city I imagine it has seen steady growth. Eugene is the same (but smaller). So it's not surprising to see lots of new development in your rephotographed pictures. What I found more surprising was the amount of new vegetation since Deal's photos. His photos show natural desert scenery. Yours are much more vegetated.

We are heavy water users but are learning to water less and less. In Joe Deal’s time the civic authorities believed there was a water source the size of Lake Superior below us, no kidding. But it’s all chambered in inaccessible sections so we actually use most of our water from the Colorado River diverted through dams in northern New Mexico, then the Chama river and back to the Rio Grande. Then it’s pumped up to dozens of large water tanks scattered through neighborhoods and distributed by gravity to homes. The increase in vegetation is what most people comment on when viewing my book.

So the city uses more water now than in the 1970s, but from a different source?

I’m told it was a desert like San Diego area until irrigation. The city has tripled in population from 250,000 to 750,000 in that time. We have always used river water from early colonial days for irrigation in the field in the river valley. But needed a lot more when suburban development crawled up the mesa towards the foothills. Complex legal agreements between Colorado, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas share the Colorado river water now. Phoenix will dry up without it.

May I divert to another project I’m dreaming up? It would be to rephotograph the many other scenes of Albuquerque by other photographers like Ernst Haas, Lee Freidlander, Garry Winogrand, Stephen Shore, Henry Wessel, Frank Gohlke, etc

That would be a massive project. 

You are right the next project is huge but I’ve only been retired two years and have plenty of time ahead. 

Ernst Haas, Albuquerque, 1969

How is it going so far?

I am slowly accumulating a list. What I cannot seem to get an answer for is if this is an allowable fair use without a copyright permission. I actually have Ernst Haas’ daughter Victoria‘s permission to use his Famous Central Ave., Albuquerque scene. I thought with that I might get more approvals from other photographers estates or heirs or representatives. 

Dan Shaffer, Albequerque, 2020

The safe answer is I would not be comfortable putting them in a book. Maybe it’s ok online or a small zine. But not anything with wide circulation. 

I have put the Joe Deal book as a gallery on my website.

Even a website is kinda iffy but no one is probably going to pursue that. But a book is a fatter target for lawsuits. Maybe Jim Stone could help with this. Does he have connections? Could he help get some permissions?

Yes, Jim stone is a good suggestion. Maybe he can crack something open at UNM and he may have good ideas about contacting or not contacting other photographers.

I don't know much about that world. Once photographs reach the gallery scene or museums or $ involved, everything gets weird.

Yes, I only printed 25 copies but since Walgreens screwed up the color registration of the black type they printed another 25 at no charge so there is an edition of 50 copies with only five left. I gave away half to nonprofits and people who helped me and sold the rest for cost.

Nice. Did Gary McLeod ever buy one? I sent him your info. He's in Japan, writing a big book about rephotography.

I don’t recall Gary’s name. Albuquerque is an important place in photography. In 1976 I worked in a copy shop near UNM and would make copies for Beaumont Newhall! A quiet tall gentleman.

Very cool. did you know of his importance then?

Yes, I was an avid photographer and spent time in friends’ dark rooms. But I was not inclined to academia and did not think about applying to grad school in photography at UNM.

You mentioned that you found the Winogrand driveway kid shot. How in the world did you find that? Do the people who live there now know about that photo?

Regarding the search for Winogrand's baby in the driveway classic, my friend Nick Tauro Jr. has a post about reshooting it called Worth a Thousand Words: Garry Winogrand and so does Joe Van Cleave: In Search of Wingrand’s ‘New Mexico, 1957.

Which other ones have you rephotographed at this stage? Any Shore photos? Friedlander? Doesn't Danny Lyon live near Albuquerque?

Yes, in the next town north, Bernalillo.  I remember his shot of a kid shooting a basket outside the trailer home with the Sandia mountains in the background. Winogrand's baby in diapers, Ed Ruscha’s Frontier gas station, Ernst Haas’s Central Ave, Lee Friedlander’s intersection, Thomas Barrow's dart.

Thomas Barrow, 1974

Dan Shaffer, 2020


Awesome. The dart must be a well known landmark. But how do you find the more obscure places?

I even contacted the Haas estate that they had miscaptioned the Western Skies neon sign as being in Colorado, so I did a drive-by and took the same shot out of the driver window to show the mountains in the distance that matched. That’s when Victoria Haas wrote me back and thanked me and said they could not change books that have been printed but they have changed it on all their electronic versions.

I can relate to Haas. I think misfiled photos are just part of being a photographer. 

I honestly think growing up in Kenya gave me a sense of scouting out locations. As a very little kid my nickname in Kikuyu language was Macharia, or wandering one. I’ve always liked history and photography and rephotographing combines them.

Ed Ruscha, Albuquerque, 1962

Dan Shaffer, Albuquerque, 2021

When you visit the sites now do you get a sense for what the photographer might have seen or thought? Can you tell why they looked in a certain direction or shot certain things? 

No, most of the shots are pretty mundane scenes for most people. But for photographers who like to share what current life is like it’s like candy.

What's like candy?

For me, the candy in an ordinary scene is usually lines and shadows that form an appealing composition. Shadows are my mainstay. They are everywhere every day - almost - here in New Mexico. 

It's funny you say that. Amid all the buildings and structures and trees that last for decades, and various changes and similarities, shadows are the most ephemeral part of all of it. Speaking of ephemerality, is the legacy of Joe Deal well known in Albuquerque? The people whose homes are in his photos, do you think they have any idea? Or is it just a nerdy insider thing.

I think it is the latter. I showed the book to a neighbor of one of the scenes. He got excited, but he’s a realtor so more likely to appreciate the history of the street. He pointed out that a still-empty lot was soon to have a house built on it, and to make sure I got that shot before construction. But of course it will be on my list for taking after construction too!

Is there something about New Topographics that makes them especially appealing to you for rephotographing? I mean, there are all sorts of pictures of Albuquerque in all styles and authors. Why do you think you're drawn to NT, or Joe Deal? Maybe Beaumont Newhall has some Albuquerque photos? Why not rephotograph his, for example?

I don’t mind following in other peoples footsteps, even if it means clambering over boulders. Good idea about Beaumont Newhall photos, although I usually think of Manhattan when thinking of him. 

Sure you could find others. But is there something in the New Topographers that invites revisiting? The pictures are generally static and open, with lots of space. Maybe they leave room a lot of room for development, in the mind and/or in reality?

As I said I am not the academic type, but the more literal documentarian. What I wish I could find is an essay by someone about Joe Deal and why he shot this way to include in a second edition. Or maybe Stone could give a photo grad student at UNM the assignment of writing an essay.

I just picked up a great book on Joe Deal with a pretty lengthy essay. But it's focused on California. Maybe you've seen it. it has blue lettering? It has a lot of info about him and his thinking, but no photos from NM.

Yes, I think I have it. I’ll check the title. Southern California Photographs, 1976 to 1986.

Yeah that’s it. Great photos. You get the sense he could be parachuted into any place and find pictures nearby. Actually it was that book I bought a few weeks back that reminded me of you. Which is when I emailed you. Full circle, zing.

I picked it up at a used bookstore before I knew about New Topographics. You are right I am attracted to that style because even though the scenes may seem boring and empty to most people, they are always well composed and usually have some irony or even humor about them. I read a definition of the word “ironize” from irony the other day that made me laugh. Never heard that word before.

Ah, so you did know of Joe Deal before NT.

I guess you’re right. I did know about Joe Deal by buying his book but had not heard of New Topographics at that time.

Do you know the Christopher Rauschenberg book Paris Changing? He rephotographed some of Atget's pictures in and around Paris.

Love Atget. Things I resent are how uptight many photographers are about how super sharp a picture is, ignoring that half of Atget’s and Cartier-Bresson’s photos are fuzzy.

I've never found that to be a prob with Atget.

For me an impactful image does not need to be sharp or need to be in a 3 to 2 format or need to be shot with a certain lens. It just needs to appeal.

Photographers can be technical nerds sometimes. Pixel peeping, fine resolution, etc. I think more than other creative fields just because mechanical tools are integral to the craft. So sometimes people get wrapped up in tech stuff. No worries, just gotta like what you like, no apologies.

From Paris Changing by Christopher Rauschenberg, (L) Atget / (R) Rauschenberg

What's fun about the Rauschenberg book is there's a section at the end called Atget's Footsteps where he doesn't rephotograph the old pictures. But instead he tries to find his own scenes in Atget's style. That's where it gets kind of interesting, when you put yourself fin the photographer's shoes and try to mimic not only their pictures but their thought patterns.

There's a mention in the book that Covid shutdown helped inspire the project, or provide time for it. Do you think it would've happened during "normal" times? Or would you have been tied up with other stuff?

Yes, I think I would have done this without Covid but not until I had retired and had the free time to go out and spend an hour or two or three going to locations and shooting.

Have you explored Albuquerque much photographically outside of the rephotographs? Your Kenyan nickname the Wanderer. Does that apply outside this project?

Most of my career I have been in outside sales so was moving around the city or country all the time with a camera within arm’s reach. Thanks to those employers for allowing me to sneak a few pictures in when the light and shadows and composition presented themselves.

Nice. What about now that you're retired. Are you exploring on your own? Or mostly through this project?

I am Macharia, so I am always wandering and exploring my hometown and this intriguing state. I rarely come home from a morning run without having taken a dozen photos on my iPhone. Flowers, architecture, roadrunners that abound here, and of course shadows.

The subtext is that one of the most essential ingredients for making photos, or any type of serious art, is free time. Just the ability to explore with no deadline for a few hours. I have never done that without getting at least a few good photos, and often many more. In fact photos come in almost direct proportion to time spent looking. Joe Deal was a photo student while in NM. So I suppose that gave him opportunities to shoot. It's something you don't think much about looking at the work now. But all of those bigwigs from the past. Their output is largely just a function of time.

Yes, I tell people I am always scanning around where I am. Luckily I have developed an eye to spot a good shot and since I carry a camera can get that shot and don’t have to go back and hope that it’s there again.

Haha, I've done that before. You drive by something and tell yourself you'll check it out tomorrow. But it's never the same. Photographer pitfalls 101.

I do believe in luck as well. There are times when I go out on a walk or a drive and one good shot after another just pops up for me. Especially nice when that happens during the golden hour. Or photographers’ happy hour. No thinking required, just noticing and using what is presented with the right composition and angle. Then when I think I’ve got the shot looking at it again to see what I missed and maybe move backwards or left or right to reassess the scene

I know the feeling but I'm not sure if it's luck. I think it’s more to do with mood or mental outlook, but I admit I don’t fully understand how photos happen. Let's put it this way. I find it harder to spot the first photo than the 10th photo. That’s been consistently true for the past few decades.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Q & A with Jesse Marlow

Jesse Marlow is a photographer based in Melbourne, Australia, and the author of the recent monograph Second City.

BA: What were the logistics of book publishing?   

JM: Producing a book during lockdown certainly wasn’t easy. While it was good to have a forced hiatus from work and being grounded from all travel distractions meant that I could really sink myself into the editing and design process, the inability to physically meet up and discuss things with other people made it tricky.

How did you find a printer?

I worked with a Melbourne printer called Adams Print who I’d heard great things about for years, so it was wonderful to be in total control and print locally. 

How did you fund publication? 

I’ve self-funded all of the books I’ve published and in this case, I had a presale which was announced via my Instagram. Instagram has been, to this point, my only real source of marketing.

How are you handling distribution and marketing?

Second City was the first time I’d done a presale and tbh, I was a bit nervous about it. The fear of potential printing delays and not wanting to let people down really played on my mind. Luckily it all went fairly smoothly with only a short delay at the final hurdle. I’ve also worked with my old friends the Melbourne publisher and distributor Perimeter Books, who have helped out with local and international distribution into the book stores. There have also been a couple of exhibitions of the work up in both the Melbourne and Sydney Leica stores, which has also helped get the book out there.

What is the story behind Sling Shot Press? 

I started Sling Shot Press back in 2005 when I self published my second book Wounded. It sat dormant for a number of years before I dusted it off again for Second City. I’m looking to do more books of my work, under the same banner, in the near future.

You shot these pictures a while ago. What made you turn them into a book now?

It was early on in lockdown and the news websites were flooded with photos of an empty city which instantly took me back to this body of work I had shot when Melbourne was a much quieter place. With time on my hands for the first time in years, I went back into my archive and rediscovered these negatives. The intention was always to turn this series into a book but I'd never seriously taken a look at the broader collection - I had maybe 10-15 shots in the back of my mind, but this was the first time I had actually opened the negative cupboard and seriously considered the work. A number of the images were on my website under a generic title of "B&W" so it seemed like the right time to give them a proper title and delve into it properly.

What was the process from rediscovery to publication?

I had a giant pin board up in my office and shuffled photos around that for a few months before settling on the final edit. With Second City, because I had the time (due to Covid and being stuck at home for 111 days straight), I really laboured over the edit and flow of the images. More so than the previous books I've published.

Did you have any help with editing? 

I had a couple of good friends here in Melbourne, Ben Dowling and Rob Donat, who I bounced a few different ideas off with the sequence. This was all done during Stage 4 Lockdown and we were unable to travel beyond 5 km of our houses. It brought about some unique challenges and at one stage I met up with my book designer, Yanni Florence, on a train station platform (within our 5 km from home radius) where we discussed paper stocks and fonts while pretending to wait for a train.

Very creative.

Ha, had to think outside the box for this one. 

For me the thing which carries through all the photos is Melbourne. It's a real love letter to the city. The photos can be seen on their own as singles. But then they gather together in the book and it's all about you walking through your home town.

Yeah, that's completely right. It's a collection of single images from my hometown, but when edited together reflect a period of time in the city of how I remember it. Now, this seems quite distant to the gentrified city it has become. There's an old cliche about Melbourne and its weather that it's "Four season's in one day" so ideas like this crept in when I was putting the edit together. We don't have the light or landmarks of Sydney so shooting the streets of Melbourne has always had its unique challenges.

I don't know Melbourne at all...Hold on, I just looked it up on Wiki. Melbourne has 5 million people?! Holy fuck that's a big city.

Yeah, it's a huge city now. Residential living in the city of Melbourne only began in the ‘90s. It's been Australia's fastest growing city for the last few years. The urban sprawl is never ending. The Melbourne CBD is a big grid and has quite a European feel to many of the streets with some lovely older Victorian buildings. There's a labyrinth of small laneways that have been embraced by the City Council in more recent times with bars and coffees shops and they've become the city's main tourism drawcard. In terms of landmarks, we only really have two - The Flinders St Station where many of my photos from Second City were taken and Federation Square - a new building built in the early 2000s. Back when the photos were taken the city and surrounding suburbs had a quite a gritty undertone reflective of the time compared to the slicker metropolis it is today.

Does the name Second City refer to Melbourne’s relationship with Sydney? Is there some other meaning to the name?

The main idea behind the title is the concept that there is always another side to a city waiting to be discovered. Initially, however, the term ‘Second City’ came to mind because of the constant reference to Melbourne (in regards to Sydney, as you mention) as Australia’s “Second City” during the early Covid-19 reporting. As the editing process progressed, the title took on a whole new meaning as the distinction between the Melbourne we all know now and those reflected in the photographs became so much more apparent. If you scratch the surface of any city, I believe it’s inevitable that you find a completely different version.

I didn't realize until talking to you now that Melbourne had changed so much. You say it gentrified. Or maybe it just passed through the usual changes of any big city. Things die off and other things grow. In any case it sounds like the book is a portrait of old Melbourne. 

That's right. I think the city itself really started to came to life back in 2002 - 2003. 

What happened 2002-2003?

In the ‘90s the city had a bit of a heroin scene which made parts of the CBD  a bit of a no-go zone. This was all cleaned up by about 1999 and the city council really opened the CBD up and started utilising the laneways. The Commonwealth Games were here in 2006 so the clean up and boom of the city coincided with that.

Did you grow up there as a kid?

I've lived here my whole life. My parents have owned a clothing store in the CBD for a number of years so I grew up taking weekly trips to the city.

Whenever I see CBD I think of cannabis. But I know it's not that. Is the CBD in Melbourne a firmly defined area, or is it just how you think of downtown? That term is not common in the US.

Ha Ha! Yeah, CBD is our Central Business District like your Downtown. Don't worry we've got the other CBD here too (although it's not legal yet :))

Is it fair to say that you've been visually digesting the city since before you could remember?

Absolutely. I feel really lucky to have had access to some of the more underground aspects of the city via my parents and their own creative pursuits. In particular my documentation as an eight year old boy of the first wave of graffiti murals. I began photographing walls in the mid 1980's with the help of my Mum.

Wait, you were eight when you started photographing?

That's right. My uncle gave me Subway Art by Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant for my eighth birthday in 1986. This set me off and with the help of my Mum and her Minolta SRT101 we'd drive around on weekends and school holidays and I'd shoot photos of the first wave of Melbourne graffiti. The plan is to do a book of these photos next. Unlike a lot of the other people who documented graffiti, being quite young when I shot, a lot of the photos are taken from further away, which now give the work a bit more of a historical context. 

I met Martha Cooper briefly in 2019 when she had a show in Eugene. Amazing woman. She’s maybe in her 70s (?) but with the energy of someone half her age. I have been trying to find a copy of her book Street Play forever. But it’s OOP and hard to source.

That’s cool. I haven’t heard of that book of hers but will try and check it out. I still have my First Edition copy of Subway Art sitting pride of place on my bookshelf. I met her very briefly two years ago when she was out here for an exhibition and launch of a short film about her.

Awesome. Very curious to see those photos. Were your parents photographers? What sort of clothing store did they run?

They've had a Women’s clothing store called Blonde Venus since 1973. Mum designs the clothes and Dad sells them. All the clothes are made here in Melbourne. Their first shop was in a very cutting edge area in the ’70s called South Yarra, which had a real arts and fashion scene. They knew a lot of photographers, in particular the legendary Melbourne photographer Rennie Ellis and the Rock n Roll photographer Colin Beard, were old friends and had often shot their clothing ranges. Mum worked a couple of times with Helmut Newton through her modeling and the fashion scene. Once I started showing an interest in the graffiti and the camera, Mum and Dad were nothing but encouraging and supportive.

Woah, your mom was a model for Helmut Newton! Did she tell you any fun stories? Does she have any prints from those sessions?

Pretty cool hey. He had a studio in the city during the '50s and '60s with another photographer Henry Talbot. No fun stories though unfortunately. Mum and Dad have a few old B&W 8x10s of Helmut’s tucked away somewhere. I haven’t seen them for years but should dig them out again.

What was the deal with your uncle? Why did he give you that book?

My uncle had a darkroom and was really into photography in the ’80s so the book was a wonderful present. It set me off on the path I'm still on 35 years later.

You were a little artsy child. I didn't know that. 

Ha, yeah, looking back I was pretty lucky to have the access to things I did.

What was going through your mind taking photos of graffiti at age 8? Were you thinking about it at all in photo terms? Or was it just, "That's cool, capture, done."

Back when I was eight, I had no real idea about what I was doing. Composition was non existent. The challenge was to just make sure I had the meter needle through the middle in the viewfinder and the graffiti piece somewhere in the frame. Many of the photos are shot through cyclone fences and from 50 metres away but for me that's what gives the images a certain charm now, years later. It was an obsession and the process of photographing walls was like collecting something. Shoot it and move on to the next. Just amassing as many walls as I could. Trying to keep up with the number of walls being painted was impossible, so I focused on particular areas closer to home and certain artists whose work I loved. Some of the artists whose work I shot have become life long friends. I shot the walls for 10 years and stopped when I was 18 in 1996. I put together a small B&W Laser copy zine of the work back in high school called ‘Big J’. From memory, I only printed 20 copies and gave them out to my mates.

Did this early brush with graffiti influence your wheat pasting practice? It's like the original people's art form. Straight from creator to viewer, no mediation. Same as wheat-paste.

Absolutely, I briefly dabbled with graffiti myself in the mid ’90s when I was a teenager. I was never any good but I had a small foot in the Melbourne scene through my friends. Most of my work was in laneways and drains around where I grew up so it's fair to say I never had the balls to pull off the more adventurous stuff my mates did. The paste ups I've been doing have definitely stemmed from that idea of "getting up" and finding walls that have huge visibility and traffic.

I sometimes go out photographing with a friend who's a graffiti guy. Sometimes he tags stuff and puts stickers up or whatever. The best part is he can translate some of the graffiti we see, which for me is like a foreign language. Once you can read the language you realize people are messaging everywhere! At least it's everywhere in certain neighborhoods in Eugene. What was your tag?

I played around and wrote Bronze for a while. I stopped back in 1998 and since then someone else has snapped it up and he's taken it to another level. My offerings were quite limited.

He stole your tag. No way. I thought that was against code.

Ha, yeah, but I was never up enough to be anyone so it was all good :)

Why'd you stop?

I stopped because I discovered the wider world of photography. It was kind of the same time I stopped shooting graffiti photos. I love the stickers you've been putting up by the way.

Glad you like them. I was on a big sticker kick for a while but my energy's faded. I try to put them where other graffiti and stickers have already been placed. Almost like a community bulletin board or something. But there's not much response. It's just shouting into the void. I’m guessing graffiti artists deal with this same feeling. 

Absolutely. My approach to the posters has been the same. I'm always on the lookout for walls that have been neglected and had a previous life via other bill posters. There was certainly a lot more wall space last year with cancelled gigs. I love the whole process of finding the walls and curating certain poster grids to suit a particular location.

Is it also a sort of illicit thrill? Almost like the rush of shooting a candid photo without asking? With graffiti and with street photography, I think some of the motivation comes from transgression. Just breaking rules for the sake of it. A very youthful outlook maybe.

Totally right. It’s a very similar thrill to shooting candidly on the street. For me with the posters though, I get a thrill during the actual application but then again when I return to the location the next day to document the work. Then I also get a kick when I pass it on my daily travels and see it live on, sometimes months later.

There's a fair amount of graffiti in the book. Maybe you could say it's just reacting to what you found. But now I wonder if it’s some nod to your past? The central gatefold in the book is semi-graffiti: "People Not Profit" Doesn't get more grassroots expression than that.

Yeah, there were a lot of other photos with graffiti in them that didn't make the book but the centre page DPS "People Not Profit" image was a must. 

Is your book meant to have a political dimension?

Nah, not really but more a logical editing choice. It’s followed by an image which really emphasises the slogan.

The guy with the bagpipes? 

Yeah, that’s right.The bagpipes player in the following photo was one of those long forgotten Melbourne icons who was seen (and heard) out on the street for years and then one day just disappeared.

Never heard from again. Hmm. Maybe he pursued a professional photo career, Haha? What do you mean “the next photo pushes home the point"

The point is that a city is made up by its people. The photo of the bagpipe player and drunken revellers following on from the "People Not Profit" DPS for me really emphasises the statement. One of the things I was really drawn to when photographing on the streets of Melbourne as a young photographer was its people and the characters you'd encounter when out and about.

What does Melbourne look like now, during the pandemic?

It's slowly getting back to its old self. Foot traffic is back up in the CBD. How are streets of Eugene?

Pretty dead. Businesses here have been hit hard. Restaurants, theaters, galleries, any place that had crowds is now dormant. I am not sure what parts will come back. But Eugene was pretty dead before so that's kind of normal. I used to shoot in downtown Portland a lot. But that's even worse than Eugene now. It's a fucking war zone, boarded up windows, inert bodies everywhere. It's feels like Kabul. Depressing. 

Yeah, sorry to hear. In terms of the feeling of emptiness, that's what I've always enjoyed about your work. You constantly make photos out of nothing.

I was born in nothing. I became a photographer surrounded by nothing. I have never had a choice about what to shoot. I just had to always deal with nothing. So I became good at finding photos everywhere. And nowhere. 

Well said. You do “Nothing” incredibly well.

Can I ask you about your process while you were shooting Second City? Most of the photos were late 1990s through early 2000s. What was your daily routine then? for photographing and for editing?

I was studying in ’97 and ’98. I actually failed the course due to lack of attendance, as I was off in the city every day sitting on the steps of Flinders St Station shooting photos. The irony of this was despite failing the course, on graduation night I won the prize for shooting the most film for the year. I still have the prize which was a gold spray painted processing reel. 

A gold painted processing reel! I am imagining that now. There is something vital there.

I was shooting around 10-20 rolls of film a week and amassing this body of work. 

Who was your teacher?

Back at photography school we had a photojournalism teacher by the name of Remind Zunde. He was great friends with the famous Australian photographer Wolfgang Sievers so was regularly bringing in amazing guest speakers. Rei was a bit of a lone-wolf within the teaching ranks and he would often tell his class that we had all wasted our money signing up to a photography course and instead should have spent the money buying books by the masters and learn that way. He introduced me to the work of Robert Frank, Cartier-Bresson and Alex Webb which really triggered the next phase of my photography development. I unfortunately lost contact with Rei about 10 years ago.

I never did proof sheets as my mentor Rei told me printing them took away from actual print making time. So I learnt to read the negatives instead. When it came to editing the book and trawling the negs, I discovered a few frames I had never printed or had no recollection of even taking.

There is one photo of some girls talking near some big culverts which I think is amazing! It was new to me. But maybe I just wasn't paying attention. The gestures, the perspective. Plus it's got strange graffiti.

Thanks! You must have missed that one of the girls down at the drains. It's been floating around for a while and I think I posted it on Instagram a few years back.

Which frames were rediscoveries?

The photo of the kids with the commission flats in the background and the lone figure with the broken arm walking up a fairly desolate city laneway (which, in the photo has only one tag on the wall). That particular laneway (Hosier Lane) is now a major Melbourne tourist attraction as a legalised graffiti precinct. 

Legalized graffiti project?

Well, the city gave up policing graffiti in that spot, so it's just become a free for all. Probably a bit like the Venice Beach Public Arts Walls in LA that has decades of legal graffiti on it.

So when you were editing the photos for the book, you had no proofsheets? Were you just dealing with negatives? Or work prints? Or what was the raw material?

I had about 100 boxes of 8x10 prints from the period that I went back through as well as all the negatives. No proofs of any of the work though.

One of my big fears is that I will reassess old negatives later on. I might make a run through them after I shoot and pick some out. But if I look at the pictures in 20 years those choices might be completely different. This is part of the reason I don't mark up my contact sheets, because I don't want to cause predilections for my future self. I'm wondering what it was like for you to look through those old photos at a later point. Did your initial choice of negatives seem wrong? Did you see stuff in the later view that you'd overlooked? 

I'm a bit the same in that I'll make initial selections and go from there - this has always been my approach. I've generally chosen the image based on the best composition, timing and gestures within a scene. With this edit and the time-lag between shooting the work and re-analysing it for a book, there were some images I discovered next to ones I'd initially chosen. For instance the frame before the Bagpipes player photo had been originally selected, but when revisited for the book, the chosen image offered a lot more and suited the flow of the series. Thinking back, I had probably overlooked it at the time as it may have felt a bit too journalistic and obvious in its approach.

Those decisions eat at me. Like, who do I trust? The me from 20 years ago when I shot it? Or the me now? In some sense you've got to trust current me, because that's you! But you could easily be wrong. Maybe yourself 20 years ago knew better. And don’t even get me started on the future you. It's all just a crapshoot. But the thing about a book is that it actually solidifies thinking into some firmly dated body. Forever.

It's a tricky one hey. For me, finding the two or three images I'd missed at the time was the best part of putting the book together. I think putting together a book about a particular place and a period of time certainly helped with the rediscovery and inclusion of a few of the photos.

What was your shooting process back then. Did you have certain places you went a lot? Did you try to explore new areas? Was there a CBD circuit? 

I grew up about 8 kms from the CBD so I'd usually drive or catch a train in for the day. For the first few years I didn't venture far from the city. The front cover photo was shot through the windscreen of my car with the cityscape on a rainy day. I was probably sitting in my car waiting for the rain to stop before heading off for the afternoon. My circuit usually began and ended with me sitting on the steps of Flinders St Station. It's an iconic Melbourne place often referred to as "under the clocks" and pre mobile phone days was where you'd often meet people for a day out in the city. It was a great people watching spot as all walks of life would congregate there and where I really found my confidence shooting candid photos of people out on the street. After a few years of this I branched out and began exploring all corners of the inner city via my car, or just by jumping on the train and choosing a random line and catching it to the end of the line.

You've shot all over the city in a variety of places, times and circumstances. Did you learn any lessons along the way about how good photos happen? What are the ingredients? Does it depend on mood? Is it blind luck? Cunning?

Back when I was shooting this work I had a little saying that I'd often say to myself when I was out and about which was "People, Place and the Moment”. These were the key ingredients throughout this work. Apart from the Flinders St Station photos I was all about discovering my hometown and this meant getting out to different suburbs. Also probably like you, I've never limited myself to only shooting at specific times of the day which I think is important with the work we shoot.

Where do you shoot now in Melbourne? Are there neighborhoods there which are still unexplored for you?

I'm shooting most days but rarely set aside blocks of time to go and shoot anymore. In recent years I've kind of just lived my life and always had my camera with me. I found setting aside blocks of time to shoot wasn't working for me. It was forcing more pressure onto a process that can't be rushed. I still live a few kms from the city so I'm shooting my own suburb regularly. When I do feel the urge to look for something new, I generally jump in the car and drive an hour West or North and try to discover a new area that's part of the growing Melbourne urban sprawl.

It sounds like you don't visit the CBD much anymore?

I find myself in there for work a bit, but haven't really shot it properly for 10 years. Most of my colour work isn't from the CBD, rather the inner and outer suburbs or from wherever I've been overseas.

I have a hard time shooting cities during Covid. I think there's a certain outlook which is necessary to shoot dense urban areas which is maybe fading for me. Or perhaps it’s just lack of opportunity. That sense of random chance and anonymity that makes city cores exciting. It used to suck me in. Now I need to give myself a kick in the pants. At least that’s how I feel shooting in Portland. God that place is rough now. I was in San Francisco a few weeks ago and had a few hours to shoot downtown. It was almost worse than Portland. Bombed out and dead. Maybe there were photos to be found, who knows. I just got depressed.

I know I said earlier that I can find photos everywhere, out of nothing. But the Covid cities defy me. I think the missing element is optimism. I need to feel a sense of possibility when I am out shooting. Which I usually do. But in those downtowns I am just overwhelmed with doom.

Yeah, I hear you. Fortunately for us over here our CBDs are starting to bustle again but I felt the lack of motivation you seem to be feeling. Like you, I get excited when I visit a new city - it's fresh and new and takes me back to the feeling I had shooting Melbourne when I started out. Last time we saw each other was in San Fran, that was a few years ago and I found it a hard place to shoot and get my head around, so can't imagine it now.

You're fully color now. Did this book make you miss shooting b/w?

Yeah, I've been shooting colour since 2004ish and digital since 2015. I switched back to B&W briefly in 2013 after my colour book Don’t Just Tell Them, Show Them was finished and in production. At the time, I felt I needed to put a sense of closure to that colour work and thought shooting B&W again would do that. It only lasted a year or so before switching back to colour. I don't miss the darkroom or shooting film. I packed mine up in 2004 when we had the big drought over here and non-professional darkrooms were on the "black list”.

What's the black list?

The naughty list :-)  With the lack of water around, non professional photo labs were considered a luxury.

What is the water source for Melbourne?

We have 10 large water resources spread throughout the Yarra Valley up in the hills. During the millennium drought the State built a desalination plant as the State’s water supply had dropped to about 28% capacity. It wasn’t until around 2011 that the water supplies had returned to a healthy capacity.

The ironic twist is that there is no such thing any longer as a "professional" darkroom. Darkrooms are for amateurs. Maybe they always were.

Are you still enjoying the darkroom? 

Yes, every week. I'm kind of a dinosaur I admit. I use a community darkroom. For me it's a chance to spend a chunk of time away from family, and away from everything. I crank my music and sink into my own world, just me and my negatives. I can focus completely on my pictures and get a shitload of printing done. I find it's hard to do that when I’m home at my computer. Too many distractions.

I always love seeing your pile of working prints from your darkroom days. There was a resurgence of community darkrooms over here in recent years but with high rents and Covid a few have since unfortunately closed up.

Fucking Covid. Oregon is officially open for vaccinations to anyone 16 and older. But some people are hesitant and we're only slowly gaining immunity. Meanwhile cases are spiking. This disease won't go easily. Have you had your shot yet?

We've been very lucky over here with low numbers and our hard lockdown in Melbourne making a huge difference. The vaccine rollout is slowly happening but as a country we are a way off being anywhere near fully vaccinated. My 95 year old grandmother still hasn't been vaccinated, so I'm not expecting a shot until next year at the earliest.

I got my shot 2 weeks ago (J & J), so I should be I'm good (fingers crossed). 

Great to hear you’re vaccinated and feeling good.

I felt like shit for a day after my shot. So I guess the germs were doing something. But now fine.


All photographs above © Jesse Marlow