Photographer Spotlight Series: Adam Marelli

When he’s not being harassed by customs agents, Adam Marelli lives in New York City. He works as an artist, photographer and architectural consultant, as well as regularly contributing to the New York Times. He originally found Leica as a tool for capturing inspiration on the road, but photography now occupies a major part of his work and documentation.  You can read more about Adam’s travels on his website. He’s also written a few guest post over at The Leica Camera Blog regarding his adventures.

1. One can say that photography and travel are two activities that were simply made for each other and it’s with polite envy that I admire those who’ve managed to make a living doing both. How did you break into the travel photography business?

The transition to working as a photographer was gradual. My formal background is as an artist. I used travel images as the inspiration for sculpture and video work. Photography was not a stand alone discipline. So, I did not really set out to be a “photographer.” Over time, it became clear that a photograph conveyed situations more intensely than any other medium. While shooting street or travel work I have less control than I do inside the studio. With a camera, we paint broad strokes and sometimes the imperfections are charming. Little by little the work began to attract attention.

2. Sometimes even non-photography inclined people are compelled to take expensive cameras with them on their travels yet that doesn’t guarantee every photo will be stunning. In your opinion, what makes a great travel photograph?

Expensive cameras only make for heavy luggage. In fact, learning on mediocre equipment will teach you more than having top of the line gear. Save the money on gear and buy plane tickets and photography courses. Good travel photography is part design, part observation, and usually a touch of good fortune. Having a decent camera doesn’t hurt. When I look at work from abroad, I enjoy pictures that could not have been taken anywhere else in the world. The tension in a good picture comes from the photographer making foreign details seem familiar. If its too out there, it gets lost on the viewer. This is where good design can bring unity to an image.

3. Travel Photography isn’t just about having a camera and going somewhere just like being a chef isn’t about owning pans and being in the kitchen. From your experience, what else is it about and what tips could you give someone who’s interested in pursuing it?

I grew up in one of the least interesting places in the world, New Jersey. Once I had a cab driver from Uganda ask me where I was from. When I answered New Jersey he responded, ”Oh, sorry.” But my boredom with the surroundings led me to travel. I wanted to meet different people and understand how they lived.

If I could give people a few pieces of advice I would say:

“Take a trip alone.” - See what it’s like to be out in the world with no familiar faces. It forces you to interact with people in a totally novel way that never occurs if you travel with friends. Traveling with friends is usually vacationing. These are two completely different experiences.

“Get a passport.” - This one is for Americans. There is an embarrassing number of people who do not have passports. The first step towards leaving the country is getting your paperwork in order.

“Visit three new places every year.” - Traveling is like exercising. It’s something that needs to be done regularly. Otherwise the habit of staying close to home takes over. Keep your feet moving and find creative ways to spend time on the road. When I was younger I used to work in construction. Every year I would take my three weeks paid vacation and take an additional 3-5 weeks unpaid to travel. My bosses liked the idea of not having to pay me for the extra time and it allowed me to regain some sanity in the world. People in NYC thought I was insane for taking two months every year. The value of travel was far more important than the money.

4. You recently wrote a captivating article on why you shoot with a Leica rangefinder for your street photography. As far as full equipment goes, what else can we find in your gear bag and have there been instances where you’ve preferred having a dSLR instead of that sweet M9?

Photographic gear of Adam Marelli

Thanks Jorge, I am happy to hear you enjoyed the article. Public response can be so difficult to gauge, especially when it comes to photography. I have written some articles that people loved, while other people have said they think the work is awful. It’s a mixed bag of highly opinionated people.

But as for equipment, I use the Leica M9 and the Leica M6. You will only ever find two lenses in my bag. Which lenses? Well that depends. I am really fortunate to have a good relationship with Photo Village here in NYC. They loan me equipment regularly for projects so I rotate through the Leica line up: 28mm f/2.8 (I own this), 35mm f/2.0, 50mm f/2.0 (I own this), 75mm f/2.0, & the 90mm f/2.0. Not sure which lens I want to buy next, though I am eyeing Leica’s 50mm f/1.4.

There are very few instances where I use a dSLR, always in studio. The major issue I have with them is they are too big. Their function, image quality, and build are fine, but they are too clunky and there are too many buttons. It’s like trying to wear a really nice suit that is three sizes too big. For someone else it might be perfect, but for me it is not a match.

5. What is the most memorable experience you’ve had as a travel photographer and do you have a photograph that would compliment that moment?

Proudest photograph of Adam Marelli

Working alongside my guru Dr. Pillai in India has been the most rewarding experience. Last year at a temple outside of Kanyakumari, a local man approached him. I could not understand their conversation in Tamil, but the gestures explained it all. Spiritual practice is often very challenging to capture on film. First, access can be extremely limited. It took almost two years before I was ever allowed to take a single picture within his community (note to young photographers, be patient. Developing a body of work takes time). And secondly, the power of a scene is often felt, not seen. This was a rare occasion where everything came together. Earning the trust of a community is very important. Only with their blessing am I allowed to work.

In the Fall, I will be back in Madurai and Gumudipoondi photographing Dr. Pillai’s slum re-development programs called HoPE Towns. It will be a unique opportunity to photograph the tribal communities as they build new ecologically friendly homes for themselves with the help of the Tripura Foundation. A portion of the proceeds from the sale of the image will be given back to HoPE Town. While I don’t have any grand delusions that my images will change the world, it is nice to give back to the people who make it all possible.

To read up more on other photographers in the Spotlight Series, check out the dedicated page.