#318. Adam Marelli on visual language and connection to the subject

By pascaljappy | Interview

Jan 29

I’ve been drawn to Adam Marelli’s photography for years, mainly because his images seem so articulate and to the point. They bring artistic touch to a reportage context yet not in a way that lets the photographer get in the way of telling the story.

Gondola boatyard by Adam Marelli

Boatyard 12 – (c) Adam Marelli

Adam was very kind to share his point of view on important and deep topics such as learning a visual language, training the eye and using introspection as a road to improvement. I’m very grateful for his time and insights and hope you will appreciate his work and enlightening words. Onwards.

[Pascal] Adam, a lot of your work is in black & white. Is that a personal preference ? And do you think b&w is a better medium for learning ?

[Adam] There are two sides to this question. In my work on the Japanese metal Smith Sasuke, for instance, I used black & white to visually link the historical lineage of this workshop to the black inks and pigments of traditional Japanese imagery. It was personal choice for this specific project and I use colour in others, such as Tanna Vanuatu.

Making photographs in black & white also helps avoid the usual Westerner reporting on exotic cultures look and adds a more personal take. Which is a double-edged sword, since many publications that could be interested by that sort of photography will only consider work in colour.

Sasuke 2 (c) Adam Marelli

Sasuke 2 – (c) Adam Marelli

The second aspect is this : I do think black & white is an easier place to learn photography than colour. When you take painting classes, you are first taught drawing, which is black & white. This lets you focus on shape, value, light and shadows without the added variables of hues and saturation. If you studied the piano, you would begin with sonatas before attempting to work on more complex symphonic scores.


When you study wine tasting, you go through steps that allow you put words on tastes. You become able to describe the wines you like or dislike in a language that is universal to all wine lovers so that all of them are able to relate your words to precise tastes and flavours. Is there a similar visual language that photographers can learn to analyze the work of masters and learn from them?

The wine tasting analogy is interesting and, yes, you can definitely learn a language to describe the technical and artistic components of a photograph.

But, what’s more important is that, in wine tasting, I was advised to focus on a small number of areas and wine makers I was interested in and that I could visit. Then to move on to others when I had mastered those.

Yasuhiro's workshop (c) Adam Marelli

Yasuhiro’s workshop (c) Adam Marelli

It’s the same with photography.

If you want to study and analyze the work of others, don’t get obsessed with the official canon. Learn all you can about your sources of inspiration and move on from them to their influences and those they influence in return. It’s exactly the same in all visual arts. When I was young, Degas was the whole world to me and I worked back in time from his paintings to the Italian masters and forward to Henri Cartier Bresson. Both directions are important to help you define and understand your voice with a camera.

Onsite 8 (c) Adam Marelli

Onsite 8 – (c) Adam Marelli

When you visit museums, galleries and libraries, it is easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer variety of styles and approaches,  and feel bad about your ability to learn and achieve similar quality. But when you focus on someone who really inspires you, analyze his or her photographs, then see where the characteristics of his work come from, and how they are used by other artists further down the line, it becomes possible for you to set goals and practice on recreating objective qualities in your own work.


Most reader of this blog are interested in travel photography, during which it is tempting to shoot as many souvenir shots as possible. The fear of missing out is strong. Do you think it possible to make a lot of great pictures in a short time, once your eye and technique have been honed?

That’s really difficult. Professional reporters and artists don’t expect to produce 10 great shots a day, let alone 200, even when the subject is rich in variety. What really helps achieve greater results is asking yourself WHY you are traveling to a specific location, WHAT exactly you hope to see and learn about.

Tanna 8 (c) Adam Marelli

Tanna 8 – (c) Adam Marelli

All good artists have a point of view…though some like to hide it from the public, but it still comes across in the work.

When the point of view is evident in your photographs, other can relate to them much more strongly. When you get to learn about an area and what you find fascinating about it, it will show in your photographs of it. Instead of returning with the same snapshots as every other tourist, you will create a work that’s centered on your interests and speaks as much about you as it does about the location.

So, work on a plan. Find something you really like in a location, return there several times and your keeper rate will be much higher.


People add a lot to travel photographs, don’t they? And yet, it feels very difficult – to me at least – to walk up to people and ask them permission to make portraits of them. How do you go about that ?

First of all, some photographers are great at buildings, wildlife, nature … others are great with faces. If you’re not drawn to portraits, there’s really no reason to force it. It’s an Internet legend that travel photography needs people to be great. You have to want to make portraits, not feel obliged to do so.

Onsite 9 (c) Adam Marelli

Onsite 9 – (c) Adam Marelli

The other thing is that, very often, people are proud of their city and view your interest in it and in them as something very positive.

Tanna 3 (c) Adam Marelli

Tanna 3 – (c) Adam Marelli

I have found the most success when I talk to people, get to know them, and discuss our mutual interests in their city or their culture. That goes beyond photography. What can you know of a city if you don’t know any locals? Places only open up when you get to know the people.

Walk about, hang out in bars, go into shops, talk to people. When you get in a personal relationship with someone, get them comfortable with the camera, ask permission to make pictures of the location, show them the results. Once at that point, most people will be very happy to appear in your photographs. Just ask.


You sometimes talk about introspection and the impact it has on art. Can you explain a bit more ?

Simply speaking, understanding what drives us is important to every one of us. It is the philosophical discourse behind every vocation.

Lost Ceremony 12 - (c) Adam Marelli

Lost Ceremony 12 – (c) Adam Marelli

In photography, the camera points outwards, but the photographs we make point inwards. Your personal world view is reflected in your art.

Style without point of view is just a gimmick. Introspection allows meaning to show clearly in your work. The more photographers can look at “Why” they take pictures, the better they will become.

Merz 3 (c) Adam Marelli

Merz 3 – (c) Adam Marelli

Recently you created an online video program for photographers called “A Room for Improvement.” Can you tell us more about the program and its title, which I believe speaks to all of us?

Well, outside art school, I find there are very little resources to help photographers improve their work efficiently. You walk into a gallery or museum and can be awed, but rarely take anything home from the experience that will help you move forward personally. Some books are great but not all are very practical.

I teach workshops and give one on one training, but not everyone is going to be able to travel to come and meet me and the cost is not within everyone’s reach either. So it has been great to slowly build an online program that photographers can use to build a strong foundation.  The first three courses cover the baseline. They contain the essential fundamental concepts that don’t need me in person to teach. And we have priced them in a way that makes them accessible to a majority of photographers.

Room for Improvement - Adam Marelli Room for Improvement 2 - (c) Adam Marelli Room for Improvement 3 - (c) Adam Marelli

Each course is based on the apprentice mode of learning. Tasks are assigned with missing elements that the student must discover for herself and which we go over in subsequent videos. We must be doing something right as the Top Instructor Program was awarded to us in January: out of 22,000 training programs on the udemy platform, Room for Improvement saw the highest student engagement.

[A note to readers : I’ve never included commercial links in this blog before, but I’ll make an exception here. For half the price of a gimmicky filter, you can educate your vision and improve your photography far more than with any piece of gear costing 20 times the price. DS doesn’t make any money from this and I’m not entirely sure that Adam does either, given the production costs and sales price 😉 But, if you’re looking to learn the alphabet of photography, and at 20$ a pop, I feel you’ll probably enjoy these 3 courses (20 videos) tremendously. – Pascal]


About Adam

If you enjoyed this interview, do get in touch with Adam. He is a generous and fascinating photographer who delivers one on one training, workshops and is the author of the online introductory courses mentioned above. Here is a short bio and more photographs.

Portrait of Adama Marelli by Steve Richards

Adam Marelli (c) Steve Richards

Artist & photographer, Adam Marelli is based in New York City.  His projects explore the ancient crafts of building, maestros in their workshops, and designs handed down through generations.  Whether he is photographing a master carpenter, dodging fish at a local market, or at the drafting table, he is in constant search of the threads which bind our cultures together.

When he noticed a shortage of design instruction geared towards photographers, he opened the doors of his studio, where he teaches the lost lessons of Classical Design.  The success of his methods saw him named as the Leica Akademie’s Resident Photographer in New York City.  His advice is regularly featured in the “Ask the Contractor” column in the New York Times, he was a lecturer at New York University, and continues to pursue projects at home and abroad.  His writings on photography appear in the New York Times, Forbes, GQ, the Gothamist, Leica Blog, Origin Magazine and Phaidon Press.  Invisible Exports gallery represents his work in New York City.

Adam’s blog and workshops can be found here : www.adammarelliphoto.com

Adam’s portfolios are here : www.adammarelli.com


Nakashima 1 - (c) Adam Marelli

Nakashima 1 – (c) Adam Marelli

Winter afternoon, Matera, Italy - (c) Adam Marelli

Winter afternoon, Matera, Italy – (c) Adam Marelli

Bellerby Globe - (c) Adam Marelli

Bellerby Globe – (c) Adam Marelli

Lost Ceremony 1 - (c) Adam Marelli

Lost Ceremony 1 – (c) Adam Marelli

Sasuke 6 - (c) Adam Marelli

Sasuke 6 – (c) Adam Marelli

Sasuke 4 - (c) Adam Marelli

Sasuke 4 – (c) Adam Marelli

Invisible City 6 - (c) Adam Marelli

Invisible City 6 – (c) Adam Marelli


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