Marlon James’ work is on display in full force at the long-awaited exhibition Pressure: Kingston Biennial at Jamaica National Gallery, Downtown Kingston starting June 26th 2022.
The National Gallery of Jamaica has called his work diverse, citing, “James is best known for his provocative portraits of fellow artists and persons who challenge societal norms, who are presented in both an iconic and candid fashion.”
His approach to his work is very clear. “I incorporate a raw, unedited approach to photography, where I often capture socially controversial subjects who represent taboo aspects of Jamaican society. I started by documenting individuals in the artistic community, and gradually branched out to the wider community including the Caribbean. An impetus for the work came from a search for my own identity, “ says James.
Currently based in Trinidad, James attended Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts and worked for ten years as a Photography assistant and then as a lecturer teaching Photography at Edna Manley.
After graduating from the College, he went on to work as an apprentice to some top Jamaican celebrity photographers, including Mark Seliger, Jeff Gamble, Anthony Mandler, Franz Marzouca and William Richards.
His big break came when he worked the set of America’s Next Top Model – although responsible for set design, he took the opportunity to show his portfolio to the show’s producer, and as fate would have it, they had an opening for a photographer for one of the show’s weekly challenges. The keen observer would remember James from Season 19, Episode 10 when he photographed the ‘Dolphin Challenge’, which featured swimwear by Cedella Marley, the daughter of the late Bob Marley.
In spite of all this exposure, James still took the advice of an art dealer and friend, who suggested to him that the art community in Trinidad was booming, and encouraged him to make the move for more commercial success. Since he’s been in Trinidad, he’s photographed former Miss Universe, Digicel, Carib, and collaborated with several fashion designers, advertising agencies, & magazine publications.
In 2017, James’ photographs were featured in an online publication, Marie Claire’s article entitled, “Why Black Women in a Predominantly Black Culture are still Bleaching their skin.” by Rebekah Kebebe. The photographs show the bleaching culture in Jamaica.
By photographing people against a plain or minimal background, he commands the viewer’s focus to these individuals who would not normally be considered in conversations about beauty or deemed worthy of a portrait. In this way, he democratises definitions of iconography, beauty and aesthetics.
He sometimes sketches out his approach to a particular image before letting things evolve in front of his lens. Most photographers will shoot over 200 images but he likes to get the shot in 35 or 50 photos, treating a camera as if it were still film. He also doesn’t spend much time editing. He celebrates the imperfections of the body, including the wrinkles and blemishes of his subjects.
His work has been displayed at Bargehouse, London, IDB Cultural Center and Art Museum of the Americas, Washington D.C, New York, Norway, Aliceyard, Trinidad and Canada. His most recent exhibitions were The Jamaica Biennial in 2014, and the Jamaican Routes exhibition in 2016, in Oslo, Norway. He currently lives in Cascade, Trinidad.
Marlon James is one of the exhibitors for Pressure The Kingston Biennial at the National Gallery of Jamaica on display until December 21st, 2022.