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