Perfect Illusions on City Streets

Perfect Illusions on City Streets

Jesse Marlow always looks up at the right time.
November 7, 2016, 12:00am

Melbourne-based photographer Jesse Marlow takes a close, focused look at modern day Australia, finding symmetry and magic in our cities and visions of suburbia.

His series "Don't Just Tell Them, Show Them" and "Wounded" are reactions to his daily routine: walk around with a camera until you see something just right. And in rare moments when everything lines up, Jesse always manages to pause and capture those chance encounters.


We asked Jesse about how he does this, and about the strange illusions he finds on Australia's streets.

VICE: Hey Jesse, let's chat about your work. Is illusion something you're always working towards?
Jesse: I think the sense of mystery or illusion has come to the fore as I've gotten older. In my early work, my influences were a bit more obvious and probably followed in the traditions of many of the "masters" whose work I had studied as a student. The challenge for all photographers is to find their own voice and visual way of presenting it. I find myself trying to incorporate a number of different elements into my work now––people, place, colour, the moment, but like all street photographers a healthy dose of chance and luck always helps.

How exactly did your love for scene photography begin?
I began taking photos as an eight-year-old. My uncle gave me book called Subway Art that was about the New York graffiti scene in the early 1980s. This triggered something within me, which led to me running around on weekends with my parents and brother taking photos of the early graffiti murals that began appearing in Melbourne in the mid 80s. I continued taking the graffiti photos up until the age of 18 where I enrolled in a photography TAFE. I quickly realised there was more to photography then graffiti.

Your work is quite abstract, is this something you're conscious of?
The combination of my attraction to colour and a feeling for images that are a little ambiguous tends to lend itself well to abstract compositions. My mum is a fashion designer, so growing up I spent a lot of time in the shop and studio watching her working with amazing printed fabrics. She has a great sense of colour and pattern, which I think has definitely influenced me and how I see things.


Was your interest in colour what inspired you to shoot film?
I shoot film for my personal work for a number of reasons, the main one being I work commercially with digital cameras, so it's a nice way to separate the two––work and pleasure. In this instantaneous world we live in with digital cameras and iPhones, it's nice to take things slowly and work to my own pace when it comes to my personal work. I still really enjoy the unknown element of film and the suspense between shooting and processing; the drive home from the lab with a back of negatives to examine still excites me.

When people are present within your work, they're always fragmented and contorted. Is this deliberate?
Yes, absolutely. It's something I'm definitely conscious of and try to capture when I'm shooting. If I can achieve this by capturing people's bodies in awkward or playful positions then I can enhance the ambiguity and mystery of the scene, then I'm happy.

Is this what "don't just tell them, show them" means to you?
The title for my book (Don't Just Tell Them, Show Them) initially appeared in the background of one the earliest photos from the series. The body of work was shot over a nine year period and as it started developing. I kept seeing the line of text pop up in my edit of photos and thought it fitted perfectly with what I was trying to achieve. For me, candid street photography should stop the viewer and make them question exactly what is happening, not necessarily revealing the truth or meaning, if any. Photos that encourage the viewer to question the composition and meaning are what I search for.

Follow Jesse on Instagram.

Words by Monique Myintoo. Follow her on Twitter.