When Jesse Marlow was eight or nine his mother would encourage his early interest in picture-taking by driving him around Melbourne to photograph graffiti walls.

 From the Archive:  Photo Review Dec/Jan 2004

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Steven Brown Japanangka, Yuendumu Community.

Now 25, he is still compelled to go out into the street to take pictures. Pictures that tell stories about the city and the society in which he lives. “Telling stories” is a phrase he uses a lot to describe where he is going with his photography.  

I took individual portraits of a team before a game. This young man had such a deep look of pride on his face as he stared deep into my camera. Since he has appeared on the cover of my book, we have become good friends.

In 1997, after completing high school he did a basic one-year course in photography at a commercial college. While most aspiring young photographers strive to get into the most prestigious and comprehensive 3- or 4-year tertiary courses they can, Marlow even then had the confidence to decide that learning studio lighting, product photography and the like wasn’t going to be much use for the kind of pictures he wanted to take.

He started to get a little work here and there and then in 1999 made contacts at The Age, which led to some fairly regular freelance work. This essentially pays the way for his personal work on the street.

Marlow is among an emerging group of mostly younger photographers both in Australia and overseas who are moving from the artifice of the studio environment and the PC screen to the real life of the street.

“Moving” is the operative word here, because from the outside looking in, it appears there is an exciting new movement emerging in photography, which harkens back to the exciting early years of the Magnum agency and Cartier-Bresson, yet is as contemporary as the world it is reflecting.

In 2001 Marlow was invited to join a small, loosely-knit international group of “street photographers” called in-PUBLiC (www.in-public.com). According to the website, photographers are invited to display with the group “because they have the ability to see the unusual in the everyday and to capture the moment. The pictures remind us that, if we let it, over-familiarity can make us blind to what’s really going on in the world around us”.

Marlow admires “people who make pictures out of nothing. From everyday street scenes they are able to come back with beautiful images and put them together in larger photo essays or in books”

On the in-PUBLiC website Marlow explains his motivation: “Street photography is my main passion. The solitary experience of walking the streets seeking out ‘that’ moment – a rare emotion, a chance sight.

“And yet, it is often the most everyday things that I keep coming back to, such as, people meeting on a summer’s day, a kiss, journeys made on the train.”

He recently became the tenth member of the Oculi group (www.oculi.com), which includes some of Australia’s best young photojournalists, including Press Photographers of the Year, Nick Moir and Dean Sewell.

While his pictures are almost all black and white, the stories they convey are anything but monochromatic. Compositional felicity first draws you to the image, but then it’s a matter of making sense of what’s going on:”Is she about to cry – or just thinking?” “What’s that look mean?” “Do these two know each other?”Telling stories.

They encourage us to think of other people and their lives, and as such are intrinsically humanitarian, though not in a placard-waving kind of way.

He has spent over four years “walking around Melbourne for 10 or 15 hours a week shooting a lot of film” and by now must be a familiar figure to the staff of Flinders Street Station, where his work has had a particular focus.

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Flinders St Station: A young woman readies herself for a passport photo at the station.

“It’s such a big station and a real melting pot. You’ve got people who sometimes sleep there, through to it being a meeting spot for people on an everyday basis and then there’s the special days like Melbourne Cup and ANZAC day, when you’ve got people in costume, really,” he says explaining the rich seam he continues to mine at the station.

He uses a fully automatic Hexar rangefinder camera for most of his street work because it’s got a whisperquiet shutter and looks like something a tourist would carry.”With a smaller, quieter camera like the Hexar you look like another tourist, while using a big camera you’d be stopped and challenged more often,” he explains.

“If you are carrying a big F5 kit you’re just not going to get that range of quiet moments.”

His favoured lens is a fast 35mm, and most of his work is printed full frame – that is composed in the viewfinder, rather than the darkroom. He does his own printing using chemical baths and an enlarger, conceding that it’s an old-fashioned approach these days.

“I’ve always strived to have complete control over how my pictures looked,” he says.

“Digital takes some of the joy away from the printing process. I like the craft and going through all the stages up to the final stage of mounting and showing big prints that I’ve taken, processed and printed myself. Step by step.

“There’s something romantic about it.”

While the street photography is an ongoing project, Marlow has also ventured to the outback to document a series of Australian Rules football carnivals in Aboriginal communities. This resulted in a beautifully printed book called Centre Bounce – Football From Australia’s Heart, published earlier this year.

“It was a lot of hard work,” he says of the book project. The original idea was for a photo essay on an Aboriginal football carnival for Inside Sport.

“I covered the Lightning Carnival in Alice Springs,where there were 30 sides playing over three days, but didn’t get a run, so I held on to the pictures.

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Clifford, Alice Springs: I bumped into him two years after this photo was taken, at another community in Central Australia. I was carrying a small photo album so I could show people my project. Showing him and his family the photo and watching and listening to their expressions was one of the highlights of my travels up north.

“Then I went to other carnivals and to Darwin for the Tiwi Islands finals and ended up making six trips to the Territory over four years. I’d go back and process my film then save up for another trip.

“I then had to learn how have a book published, dealing with printers, designers, deciding on paper stock, getting advice from people and getting the funding.”

ATSIC, the AFL and Konica co-sponsored the book, which he says has been a reasonable success.

“It’s not Harry Potter, but it’s exceeded what I expected,” he said. He’s also sold prints and attracted the occasional speaking engagement on the strength of Centre Bounce, and “it’s opened a few doors”.

Looking forward, Marlow can’t see a time when he doesn’t want to do what he’s doing now. He just wants to do more of it and less of the “weddings, parties, anything” photography which brings in a living.

“I want to get to a level where this is all that I’m doing – documentary and street stuff. I think if I just keep going the way I am, hopefully it takes care of itself.”

See Photo Review magazine Issue 14  for the print edition of this profile which includes additional images.

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