Documentary, News

Obituary: Peter Marlow

Self-portrait of Peter Marlow at his home in Gee Street, London. It was taken for ‘Strategies Magazine’ in Paris, which commissioned him to photograph 18 communications directors of major international companies in 2008 © Peter Marlow/Magnum Photos

Peter Marlow, the celebrated British photographer and active member of Magnum Photo Agency, died in London this week at the age of 63 after contracting septicaemia and influenza during a stem cell transplant. 

Magnum described Marlow, who joined in 1980 and became a full member in 1986 as “part of the essential glue that has held us all together.”

Along with Chris Steele-Perkins, Marlow founded Magnum’s London office in 1987, living in a penthouse above the office in London’s Old Street area.

Stuart Franklin, the Vice President of Magnum Photos, paid tribute to Marlow, saying he was an integral member of the world-famous agency.

“Peter was a quiet, calm man, a peace maker amongst us,” Franklin said. “I have no memory of him ever raising his voice, quite remarkable for a man who’s been Magnum’s President twice and Vice President on numerous occasions. He internalised his frustrations, and lately his pain.

“We have lost a very good friend to all of us. Our feelings reach out to Peter’s family at this terrible time.”

Steele-Perkins, a lifelong friend as well as Magnum contemporary, said of Marlow: “I saw Peter at the London Bridge Hospital on Wed 10th February and he was tired, bored in hospital and optimistic. He had been ill for almost a year and I did not know that. most people did not know that, and that was very Peter – get on with it and don’t make a fuss. The next time I saw him,  on Friday 19th, he was unconscious and in intensive care. You know the rest. [It’s] extremely sad.

“We all owe him a great deal in Magnum: he was crucial in setting up the London office, [and] he served as President and as Vice President in London.

“Not least, he burnished Magnum’s reputation by the consistent quality and professionalism of his commercial work, and the insistent eccentric individualism of his personal work and the example of his own behaviour.”

Born in 1952 in Kenilworth, Warwickshire, Marlow started his photographic career aboard an Italian cruise ship touring the Caribbean after a degree in psychology at Manchester University.

Marlow joined the Sygma photo agency in 1976. After documenting the volatile situations in Northern Ireland and Lebanon, he gave up on photojournalism, searching instead for a more poetic visual signature.

Marlow said of his work: “I go for photography that overlays and enhances. By blending observation and wit with reason, I want my work to generate a sense of the unexpected, the hidden, and the seemingly spontaneous.”

Marlow was known for his willingness to share photographs of his family – his wife Fiona, their three sons, Max, Theo and Felix and his daughter, Chloe – with the wider world.

In an interview with autographer.com, he talked of the time he photographed his father’s funeral. “I think you can make a situation worse by photographing it,” Marlow said. “But my children and wife are so used to it that it doesn’t affect them.

“I photographed my children scattering their grandfather’s ashes, as we wanted them to learn about what happens when people die.

“This is something that didn’t happen to me when my mother died and I was very young – I didn’t get to go to the funeral. I could sense that other members of my wife’s family were not comfortable with me doing this, so it’s important to recognise people’s feelings, especially during such fragile times.”

In his early career, Marlow became renowned as a portraitist on assignment for The Sunday Times Magazine, for whom he worked continuously throughout the 1980s. His photographs of British Prime Ministers, from Tony Blair to Margaret Thatcher to David Cameron, are now considered iconic.

Despite his fight with cancer, Marlow was working on an exhibition of his most recent photography series as recently as January, which will open in Coventry Cathedral on 29th April 2016. On learning of the news of Marlow’s death, The Dean of Coventry Cathedral John Witcombe, wrote:

“We are shocked and saddened by the news of Peter’s death. It was a delight to work with him on the development of the English Cathedrals exhibition – which we still hope will be n presented in his honour and memory in Coventry Cathedral alter this year. Peter has shared with us his gift for seeing – and particularly his gift for seeing light.

“Light, and space, are the hallmarks of all our Cathedrals, and Coventry Cathedral in particular. Peter’s gift of helping us see will stay with us, and will be his lasting legacy. He will remain a very special man in our hearts, and we will miss him – but his photographs will remain, and continue to open our eyes to the world around us. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family, friends and colleagues, as we entrust Peter to that greater light for which we all hope.”

His last days were spent in a London hospital, where he watched over the River Thames. He is survived by his family, and by the London offices of the Magnum Photo Agency, which continues to go from strength to strength.

We’ll bring you details of Marlow’s exhibition at Coventry Cathedral closer to the time.

PORTRAIT OF BRITAIN: British Journal of Photography envisaged as an exhibition by the people, of the people and for the people. Now, in our new portraiture issue, we can reveal the winners of Portrait of Britain, a nationwide exhibition examining the face of modern Britain. The magazine also includes longform features on Nadav Kander’s most recent portraiture series, Charlie Kwai’s stunning London street photography, and the picture editors of some of the world’s top magazines.

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