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Kenilworth, UK, 1952
Peter Marlow's eye has been defined in relation to photojournalism, but he is not a photojournalist. Initially this was the path he chose, his early years marking him out as one of the most enterprising and successful of Britain's young news photographers. He joined the hard-nosed Sygma photo agency group based out of Paris, for whom he delivered the decisive news moments of their trade, but found he didn't have the right appetite for the job. The legend of the concerned photojournalist and the camaraderie of photo reporters turned out, in the Lebanons and Northern Irelands of the late 70s, to disguise dog- eat-dog competition between photographers hunting fame at all costs. Marlow didn't like war, and he didn't fit in.
His portfolio from the Sygma years gained him access to the Magnum co- operative in 1980, for whom he initially offered what was expected of him: more of the same. But for Marlow the whole point of joining Magnum was to be free, and to use his freedom to exercise an independent vision of his own. Helped by the co-operative's brutal initiation process (involving the unrelenting and sometimes confrontational scrutiny of its young members' photography), Marlow found a different way to work.
Liverpool and Amiens turned out to be the sites of key moments in this process. A bleak period in Marlow's personal life led him to escape into his own world in Liverpool. Once the hub of the British Empire, by the mid 80s the city had become the epitome of Thatcher's downside; a wasteland marked by loss of industry, jobs and purpose. The fabric of its decay appealed to Marlow just as, paradoxically, the undiminished spirit of its people lifted his own. Here he found a place where he could be himself, making a body of work which allowed him both to meet the expectations of the social realist tradition of Bill Brandt, Don McCullin and his colleagues in Magnum, and to explore more personal concerns.
While the narratives of people and situations continued to take center stage in his work, over the eight years of the Liverpool project Marlow found a new visual relationship to the physical stuff of his surroundings; the most startling images involved an absorption in peripheral details - concrete, wallpaper and building materials. The tangential glance was taking over from the decisive moment; a fascination with the surreal and fragile physicality of transparently constructed things replacing reassuring story-lines. He began to understand how to work light in new ways, so that the air in these photographs has tangible presence - something that required considerable technical ability.
Today Marlow's reservation about the Liverpool work is that he wore his heart too much on his sleeve. What happened was that while still working in the manner of the photojournalist he began to free himself from photojournalism's constraints. The tension between social and visual purpose is unresolved here, but Liverpool's visual subtext was shortly to become the central point of his work.
In 1991 Marlow was given an open assignment by the French government Department of the Somme to make a body of photographs in Amiens. This became the opportunity for Marlow to begin to work in medium format, which proved to be a critical turning point. The slower movements of the medium format camera required more considered image-making than the small, fast 35mm, the larger negative recording another layer of detail. And the square frame served his now-distinct compositional purpose.
Where Liverpool offered a unique sense of place (to which Marlow had a strong relationship), Amiens did not. The purpose for the client was to help grow the town a stronger identity through the process of commissioning new work. The identity Marlow lent it turned out to be that of his own photographic approach, rendering Amiens distinct not for its particular characteristics but for its surreal absence of character. Marlow's Amiens is absolutely his own, simultaneously defined by material, inconsequential detail and described as a landscape of the imagination. The studied non-place, featuring the absorbing non-event, described with enormous attention to details of no apparent significance - this became Marlow's subject matter. This is photojournalism turned inside out.
'Non Places' is the title of the completed but as yet unpublished body of photographs that Marlow pursued through the 90s. It is an album of fragmentary landscapes, all in black and white and made in the square format, each image exploring a 'space between events'. These empty moments - shot at airports, motorways and factories, on city streets and in suburban homes - are firmly in the manner of the Amiens pictures.
Yet the title is ultimately a conceit: these photographs, which are all made in England, prove to be concerned, after all, with a particular perspective on a particular place. The almost-empty motorway bears the funeral cortege of Princess Diana; the peaceful water glade is the site of a former colliery. England is beautiful, but it is a wasteland. Marlow's visual attitude is a kind of Pastoralism, firmly within a tradition of English art, but where lyrical beauty turns out to be rendered from the detritus of human endeavor. The work is simultaneously romantic and severe, light and dark. Just as Marlow has dismembered his landscapes, these non-places are peopled by dismembered bits of human bodies caught askew. The only whole human confronted head on within this series appears alone in a sunny London landscape carrying a panel stating 'ITS GOING TO GET WORSE'. The myth of the English idyll turns out to frame a poignant alienation.
Born in 1952, Marlow is still young, but 'Non Places' may prove to be the most distinct body of work of his career. Since its completion, his aesthetic has shifted only in as much as he has made mainly color photographs, although in all important respects his approach is the same. The colour of incidental things becomes central to his pictures just as their shape and mark is to his black and white work. Marlow now photographs as much in Japan, the USA and Europe as he does at home. His work has completed a circle: he began as an international photojournalist but returned home to undo his past, understand his home and discover a new poetry. Having found it, he has taken it back on the road.
Ill Premio de Creacion Fotografica Luis Ksado first prize for work in Galicia, Spain, 1999
The Photographers' Gallery, London, award to continue work in Liverpool, UK, 1988
National Headline Award Atlantic City New Jersey, USA. For outstanding magazine feature photography, 'Remembering Veitnam', 1986
Arts Council of Great Britain, award to continue work on 'London by Night', 1982
SELECTED PUBLIC COLLECTIONS
Centre National de la Photographie, Paris
Institute Valenciano Arte Moderne (IVAM), Spain
The Arts Council of Great Britain, UK
The Photographers' Gallery, London
Victoria and Albert Museum, London
SELECTED SOLO EXHIBITIONS
'Millennium', Rhodes, Greece, 2001
'Ancient Kumano Roads and Roads to Santiago', galleries in Osaka, Kyoto, Tokyo and Wakayama, Japan, 1999
'Looking Out To Sea', Photographer's Gallery, London; Royal Photographic Society, Bath; Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool, UK, 1993
'London By Night', The Photographers' Gallery, London, 1983
'The Ultra Right in Europe', The Canon Gallery, Amsterdam, 1979
SELECTED GROUP EXHIBITIONS
'Magnum - Our Turning World', touring exhibition opening at Barbican Art Gallery, London, and major venues Worldwide, 2000
'45 Years in Eastern Europe', major tour in Europe and audio-visual presentation at Arles Raccontres, France, 1990
'British Eyes', Centre National de la Photographie, Paris, 1985
'The National Front', FNAC Gallery, Paris, 1979
'Lives', The Hayward Gallery, London, 1978
Ancient Kumano Roads and Roads to Santiago, A&A Publishing, Tokyo, Japan, 1999
Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Arte, Bologna, Italy, 1998
Underground, Cahiers Du Cinema, 1993
Liverpool-looking out to sea, Johnathon Cape/Random House, 1993
Department Somme, Trois Cailloux, 1992