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VICE Loves Magnum

Peter Marlow's Incredible Photos Make Life As Eerie As Dream

I spoke to the Magnum veteran about his hugely varied career.

Geneva, Switzerland. The summit between Ronald Reagan, then-president of America, and Mikhail Gorbachev, then-general secretary of the Communist Party of the USSR. The two leaders listen to their interpreters during a press conference. (1985)

Peter Marlow’s career has covered everything from news photography to war reporting, through street photography and a much lauded collection of portraits. However, he is perhaps best known for his own, more personal projects – like his series on the closure of Longbridge's Rover factory, or Liverpool: Looking Out to Sea, the book focusing on the urban degeneration of Liverpool – often covering the stories with a lack of human subjects, which lends much of his portfolio a sense of eerie stillness.


I gave Peter a call to speak about not being cut out for war, spotting the moments and details that bring spaces to life and the importance of curiosity in photography.

London, 1978. A National Front march.

VICE: I spoke to David Hurn for the previous column in this series. He was very open about his motivation for getting into war reporting – that it was the most direct way to become a professional photographer at the time. What were your motives?
Peter Marlow: I am a generation on from David. I left university in 1974, which was an era when you could actually live off your student grant. I led the life of Riley, left uni, did some work in the summer and had never thought about what the hell I was going to do after. We had the luxury of knowing we would probably get jobs easily, because back then people who went to university were much more of an elite than they are now. I'd always wanted to be a photographer. Influenced by colour supplements that came out in the 70s, seeing the work of Don McCullin and Larry Burrows. There was an issue of the Telegraph Magazine on war photographers, and I thought, 'That’s what I want to do.'

I got a job as a photographer on a cruise liner. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. The other photographer had to suggest to me that I focus and press the button with different hands in order to save me from moving them. After that I travelled around and spent a few months in Haiti. That was the first experience I had of what we used to call the Third World. It was an amazing eye opener – the first genuine hardship I had seen. I look back at those pictures and think they're some of the best work I've done – the first thing I did that was a serious piece of work.


I then started talking to some agencies in New York and finally at job as a photographer with Sygma, a French photo news agency, and basically went all over the world for a few years. Got everything from Northern Ireland to the revolution in the Philippines, and war in Angola. You name it…

Haiti, 1975

I always read that Angola was very unpleasant, even by the standards of that era’s African wars.
Yeah, very unpleasant. I was quite political. I took a mobile darkroom in a suitcase and toured with the Patriotic Front’s photographers, and sort of in return for that they allowed me to see some of the training camps in Zambia. I was the first person showing these thousands and thousands of guys – it was a big spread in the Sunday Times Magazine – these men and kids training with wooden Kalashnikovs to liberate Rhodesia.

So you were quite idealistic then? It wasn’t, 'I’m going to go there so I can become a professional photographer'?
It was both. I was politically motivated, in that I thought what was going on in Rhodesia wasn’t right. It wasn’t apartheid, but it was pretty close. But I got quite friendly with Joshua Nkomo, one of the partners in the Patriotic Front, who eventually fell out with Mugabe because he got rid of a massive part of his tribe. But he used to stay in the Savoy Hotel. That’s where I used to go and see him. And I suggested [I travel with the Patriotic Front] and he said, "Yeah, let's do it."


So what went wrong with that type of work for you?
I did get some very good pictures, and was doing a lot of conflict work,  but I just realised I was never ever going to be Don McCullin. And actually, in certain situations, I was very, very scared. It just didn’t feel… well, I don’t mind admitting it, I just wasn’t cut out for it. I mean, I’d do earthquakes and famines and, you know, I still do those things – but I always tried to do more behind the scenes. Like the work I did on Kosovo – I was there with the US fleet, behind the scenes.

Having a contract with Sygma meant that if they said, "Go to Iran," or something, you had to go – there was no choice, basically. So I was attracted to Magnum because the impression I got was that you could really do what you wanted. You know, no one was going to tell me what to do. So that was about that.

Londonderry, Northern Ireland, 1979. Ten years after the arrival of British troops in the country, the barricades are once more dividing Catholics and Protestants in the areas of Belfast and Londonderry. Here, children eat their ice creams while soldiers patrol the streets of Londonderry.

What year did you join Magnum?
In 1980. I had always carried on my own work – always – and I've carried on doing news photography. But I have balanced the two. And I did do news things, like Northern Ireland with Magnum.

And I did a lot of work in Israel, the revolution getting rid of [former Filipino dictator Ferdinand] Marcos. I was working on The Sunday Times Magazine a lot and you had a bit longer when working with them, working with really good writers. And the balance was more in my own hands then. In '82 I did the shipyard strike in Gdańsk and got a big shot there of [former Polish president] Lech Walesa holding up the pencil that the government used to sign the agreement to the strikers’ 21 demands. That got a double page spread in Life magazine.


But I’ve always tried to do my own thing on the side, so during the mid-80s I started a project on Liverpool and I did a book on that. But I’d always be combining that with doing assignments. I’m very prolific as a photographer.

Yeah, and you're quite challenging to interview because of that. Not only in terms of the subjects you work on, but also the type of photos you take – everything from portraiture to reportage to the very different stuff you’re more associated with now: empty interiors, buildings, factories, aircraft. It’s quite hard to know what to focus on.
The one focus might be that you don’t need to have a load of action to take a good picture. The Rover [factory] story is classic and I think I took like 25 trips up there and it never got published. Wallpaper published [some of the photos], but I thought [the rest of the photos] would make a fantastic book about the deconstruction of a plant that used to employ 45,000 people. I followed that plant all the way through to it becoming a green field. But, in a way, there was nothing going on in that place – it was basically falling apart.

Longbridge, Birmingham, England, 2005. The abandoned MG Rover factory and offices after the company went into receivership on the 7th of April, 2005.

I guess that’s your thing: capturing the emotions of a story without needing to record the people involved – doing it through objects or streets or buildings. For me, the Rover story was sad – it is sad. There’s the unavoidable dreariness about factory life, then the loss of all the livelihoods and that community.
It was all the details that were there… There was a chart on a wall about how the people had their tea – you know, "Pete - two sugars, Eric – no sugar." You can either go and photograph the Job Centre in Longbridge [near Birmingham] or you can photograph that, and to me that’s more powerful because it shows a way of life that’s disappearing. I [enjoy] the challenge of showing that in photography. It’s what keeps me interested, because it is so challenging to do that.


It’s similar to the Liverpool story, too, which I also found to have a sadness to it. Do you worry that taking photos in the way you do – without the participants – makes the work too open to interpretation?
You can make some comparisons in terms of mood and in terms of the kind of thing I’m interested in with all the details of things in those two stories. There are parallels; one's colour, one's black and white. But yeah, I’d agree there are similarities.

Taken from the book Liverpool: Looking Out to Sea. (1993)

But was conveying that sense of loss and sadness an active aim for you in shooting the Rover story? Or do you just take the photos and let the viewer take whatever they will from them?
When they closed it down in 2005 I saw it as an opportunity. It was completely closed – no one was going in there, no journalists – and I did a deal with The Birmingham Public Archive that they could have 50 photos if they could help me get permission to shoot there. But I didn’t go in there thinking anything. I just went in there as a really curious person. I was fascinated to see this Mary Celeste-type scene. There were 25 factories or something. People had left, like, half cups of tea and things lying about. I’m fascinated by that kind of detail. I don’t know if that’s got some deep psychological meaning. It’s an emotional thing, not really an aesthetic thing, but I do seem to have the ability to convert it into a picture – translate it into a picture. But I’ve never understood why I could do that. Why me?


I also wanted to talk to you about the Concorde project, documenting its last days before its 2003 retirement.
That was not my finest bit of work ever, but I don’t know. The book was a bit superficial. One of my old assistants became an airline pilot and he could get cheap tickets on Concorde, so I got a couple of tickets for my wife and youngest son and sent them off to New York on the Concorde. My other son and I went to the end of the runway at Heathrow to watch it take off, and it was like a bloody rocket. I remember being terrified. Seeing it take off was amazing, but the main thing was that, while there, I saw all these people who had come to watch, too. I thought, ‘What a great project.' This was before they announced Concorde was shutting down. It’s basically a book about obsession, because that’s what plane-spotting is.

Cumbria, England, 2001. The disinfected mat across the road is an attempt to stop the advance of the foot and mouth disease to the farm beyond. Taken from the series "Point of Interest".

I guess, inadvertently, that project also fell into the theme of things dying and falling apart. So I guess you could say that your projects are often tied together by an emotional subject. Do you think of yourself as covering some theme in general? Do you have an eye for a decline of industry and places? Or is that accidental?
I think what unifies it is a way of seeing things. So I’d liken it to going on a long car journey, and when you close your eyes that night some little images come back into your head and they're very random – stuff that you don’t actually notice at the time. I try to identify what those things are and photograph them. Trying to find the places that people tend to ignore and give them meaning. I work a lot better, I think, when not a lot is going on. I get more satisfaction from taking a good picture of an empty place. The challenge of it is what keeps me interested.


And just to make this even harder, let's finish by talking about the recent stuff you’ve been doing. Portraits – you shoot a lot of them. How do they fit in to all this?
I see portraits more as a "job" – but it’s a job I’m fascinated by. I shot the deputy prime minister the other day and we got on quite well. He's a very nice bloke – almost too nice, really. And then, during a shoot, there was one picture I took just of his legs – chinos and suede shoes. That was more interesting to me than the head shots. So I don’t differentiate between the two, particularly. It’s an opportunity to take pictures and see some interesting things. I think, for any photography, you’ve got to be curious.

Click through for more of Peter Marlow's photographs.

Taken from the book Liverpool: Looking Out to Sea (1993)

Belfast, Northern Ireland, 1977. A Republican youth with a gun during the Queen's Jubilee riots.

Haiti, 1975

Longbridge, Birmingham, England, 2005. The abandoned MG Rover factory and offices after the company went into receivership on the 7th of April, 2005. Newspaper cuttings showing Rover's recent history.

Longbridge, Birmingham, England, 2005. The abandoned MG Rover factory and offices after the company went into receivership on the 7th of April, 2005.

Longbridge, Birmingham, England, 2006. Demolishing the MG Rover Factory, “Old” West Works.

Taken from the book Liverpool: Looking Out to Sea (1993)

London, England, 2002. Empty office on Gee Street. Taken from the series "Point of Interest".

Dungeness, Kent, England, 2006. The Experimental Station. The conversion process. Taken from the series "Point of Interest".

Previously – Sublime Moments in Mundane Life: David Hurn's Amazing Photos