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Second City by Jesse Marlow – Book Review

Words by Doug Spowart with imagery by Jesse Marlow

By & August 12, 2021August 26th, 2021Book Review

On the table before me sits a book waiting to be read. I notice its eye-catching lemon colour and the coarsely screened monochrome street scene on its cover. At each corner of the cover in thin white capitals are four words: SECOND, CITY, JESSE and MARLOW

The book waits while I reflect on Jesse Marlow, his work and books – some of which I have in my library. He is an acclaimed street photographer and an advocate for Leica cameras. Key to a Marlow photograph is the synergy created between the subject and the mercurial fast-moving space of the street.

There is for me an anticipation about this book’s content as the photographs were made early in Marlow’s candid analogue photography work from 1998-2004. I’m interested in the origins of the title Second City and also the collaboration in the curation and design of the book with accomplished photographer and book designer Yanni Florance.

Often when I read reviews of photobooks the commentary seems focussed on the photographer’s works. In my encounter with a photobook I consider it not so much for the individual photographs it contains but rather the book as an holistic piece of visual communication.

With that in mind I reach forward and pick up the book. Immediately my haptic experience notes its solidity and the texture of the cover on my fingers. On opening the book, I take a quick look fanning the pages and flicking through. I stop on a few occasions, noting the feel of the paper, image placement, values relating to print quality and other graphic design attributes. I note that the overall design ‘feel’ of the book is well considered and its production values are of a high quality.

I settle back in my chair and view the closed book and cover again before opening it for a more considered read. The cover moves aside black endpapers are revealed and present a segue for clearing the mind in preparation for what is to follow. I continue turning, the title page, past some text pages (I’ll read them later), and then into the body of the book to the black and white images that are driving my interest.

The first photograph is a black and white double-page spread of the cover image that positions me in a car looking out through a rain spattered windscreen to a sombre cold city skyline silhouette. The dynamic range photograph is seductive in its richness and I note that the image has been overprinted with a varnish to emulate an unglazed glossy fibre print.

I turn the page and the next photograph, made at a pedestrian crossing shows a large artist’s canvas of a portrait being carried across the street – short legs emerge from the bottom of the painting as if it is self-propelled. After viewing a few more pages the image placement design strategy becomes evident. It consists of a traditional approach where the image is framed with a wide border, positioned on the right side of the double-page spread and faces a blank white page. Selected photographs are presented across the double page spread. The size of the larger images adds impact and interrupts the routine of the smaller image placement strategy. The simplicity of the book’s layout enables the images to have primacy – unlike some contemporary photobook design where artifice and graphic design flourishes sometimes overtake the core reason the book – the story carried by images. 

I continue to turn the pages and realise that the sequencing and layout of photographs is constantly shifting my viewpoint so that metaphorically I am drawn into a photo-walk through the city with Marlow. At one point I find myself standing back behind others on a railway platform watching for a train, then I’m in a quiet darkly illuminated arcade witnessing an intimate moment shared between a punk couple. A page turn later I’m transported back walking along a suburban street where I meet a scrawny elderly man who struts past a wall covered with bodybuilding posters. The page turns again and now I’m standing in a large concreted drain where four young women seem engaged in an intense discussion.

At the centre of the book a single panoramic image of a sparsely inhabited city street is featured as a double gatefold. The design device of the gatefolds provides a break in the rhythmic page-turn. It requires a different handling of the book and slows down the reading. Created also is a variation to the reader’s visual engagement with the page and adds emphasis and connection with decoding the message contained in the extended photograph.

I continue my walk through the city and the cinematic narrative presented by my page turning almost creates the illusion of the being there. The last image, a double-page spread features a backlit silhouette image of a city skyline with a bird in flight. The wide-angle landscape is reminiscent of the opening image though it has none of its malevolence. The bird in flight, the openness and simplicity of the view imparts to the reader a suggestion of optimism for the future.

I return to the front of the book. This time I pause to read the essay written by Melbourne based author Tony Birch. I chose not to engage with this text on the first viewing of the book as I wanted to engage with Marlow’s visual story first. Reading Birch’s words at this time seems appropriate as they offer ways to frame Marlow’s photographs within the book as a whole. His essay introduces many concepts and themes from photography history to contemporary social issues including Covid and importantly, in the most eloquent of terms, his connection with Melbourne and how he claims that Marlow’s work has ‘provided us with a self-portrait of common humanity.’ 

I continue through the book until the last page is turned. I then return it to the table and sit back to reflect on what I have just witnessed. Overall, this formative Marlow work reveals his astute observations of the human relationship with and in the urban environment through his use of candid photography approaches – however a photobook is more than photographs.

In ‘reading’ a photobook I want to be drawn into a narrative, whatever form that may take, that will emerge to provide the glue that holds the book together and transforms meaning beyond each specific photographic component. The narrative in Second City is revealed as the reader is taken on a walk with Marlow in the city and is immersed in a world that is usually overlooked and prosaic. In this he weaves a story where he invites us to glimpse through his viewfinder, a second view of the city – one he has captured, that now lives on as images on the pages in this book.

This article was produced in collaboration with The Antipodean Photobook

Review by Doug Spowart 

Editing by Victoria Cooper

Second City is available for purchase now

Doug Spowart

Dr Doug Spowart has for over 50 years collected photographically illustrated books and in 2012 completed a PhD on the topic of self-publishing in the digital age. He has extensively researched, judged and commentated on the photobook in Australia and New Zealand for the Antipodean Photobook Blog where he promotes internationally activities, events and publications emerging from our local region. In 2019 with partner Victoria Cooper he coordinated World Photobook Day events at the Ballarat International Foto Biennale.

The Antipodean Photobook is curated by Dr Doug Spowart supported by partner Dr Victoria Cooper and provides information about the art and practice of the photobook in the Antipodes – Australia and New Zealand. This information presented in the blog is particularly associated with books where the photograph acts as the principal narrative agent, the haptic experience and design of the book as well as how it operates as a vehicle for presenting ideas and telling stories.

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