Melbourne-based street photographer Jesse Marlow recently collaborated with Architectus’ Urban Design and Planning (UDP) team on an exhibition that intended to explore the relationship between urban design and societal behaviour.

Art through the ages has always been reflective of the social environment. However, this relationship also works the other way around - creativity can provoke societal change, just as society inspires creativity. This is something Marlow has explored in depth as part of his work as a street photographer.

A Melbourne resident, Marlow began by shooting candid street photos in the city in the late 90s. Unlike Sydney with its major landmarks, Melbourne, he believes, needs a little bit more effort when it comes to capturing the moments of beauty and humanity. However, this challenge has worked as creative fuel for the street photographer.

In their brief for Marlow, the UDP team sought to capture the unexpected moments of urban living in a changing Melbourne. In response, the photographer wanted them to think about what inspired or challenged them about the images in retrospect, from their perspective as planners and designers.

By capturing these quirky moments of humanity in the city for UNCOVER, and then listening to the interpretations of the UDP team, Marlow got to look at urban living in Melbourne from a completely different perspective.

Foo was here

For example, one image entitled ‘Foo was here’ shows a dog peeking over a fence into the street. For Marlow, it was a rare, still moment of connection with a canine. On the other hand, an urban planner at Architectus noted the tension between the heritage house in the background and the more modern high fence in the foreground, highlighting the privacy issues of modern life and a “lack of engagement with the street that is emphasised by the dog’s desperate attempt to connect”.

Victoria Market

In this photo of a girl taking a nap on a concrete safety bollard, Marlow recalls being drawn to the quirkiness of her relaxation atop a bollard designed to protect. An urban designer at Architectus noted how the public realm was changing in the face of new security threats in our urban communities, “raising expectations of a civic design that preserves place qualities as our way of life becomes more vigilant”.

Morning sun

To a photo that captured the tranquil moment before a morning workout, an urban planner responded that “the city needs to provide for its people’s physical and mental wellbeing, with spaces that let us step aside from time to time”.

The UNCOVER project gave Marlow an opportunity to observe how the urban designers spotted elements in his images that he hadn’t meant to convey, or interpreted the scene differently to what it really was from the perspective of their work.

By the end of the project, the connection between photography and urban design was undeniable, says Marlow – just like photography is all about the audience’s interpretation of an image, urban design is all about the population’s interaction with the built environment and its surrounds.

Putting people back into the picture

Urban design is about exploring how people are using public spaces, including forecourts of buildings and transitional spaces, and how our growing populations work, live and play within these densifying, expanding spaces. Similarly, street photography is about capturing the macro scale of the city – everything that makes up an urban space: the mix of people, the use of places, the ugliness and the quirkiness.

Both industries are inherently human-centric. Incorporating the human element for scale is vital in photography, especially when shooting around the city. Capturing moments of humanity can reveal that people are using spaces in ways their urban designers and planners had sometimes not intended, like these guys playing basketball in the back alley.

Similarly, the human element is just as central in urban design. Designers are constantly balancing functionality with vitality; creating life-filled cities that are flexible to the needs of their communities, and creating spaces that can be used in myriad ways.

Be it photography or architecture, keeping people in the picture helps one to go beyond architectural elements and explore the full human experience therein. Street photography can help translate the relationship between citizens and city in new and unique ways, giving urban designers a true insight into the heart of their city beyond the facts and figures.

Photos: Jesse Marlow