Whilst they’re both international cities, New York and Sydney couldn’t be more different.
One a bustling metropolis, the other sprawling and suburban. And this is where photographer Jesse Lizotte grew up, swinging between the two like an educational pendulum, with both cities influencing both his character and photography alike.
“Looking back, I’d say problems with authority and non-conformity at school defined my adolescence,” Jesse tells me. “I really feel sorry for my mom, she was constantly bailing me out.” An Australian on paper, Jesse and his family moved to New York when he was too young to remember, and then when he was 12 and just getting into New York life, they upped and moved back to Sydney. “I remember being super excited about coming to Australia,” Jesse says of returning to his country of birth. “It felt completely foreign to me at that time even though it’s a huge part of my identity. The first time I went back to New York to visit during summer holidays I was 13 years old, and all my friends thought I was this uncouth, crazy Australian kid. I was arrested on Canal Street for shoplifting and subsequently locked in my uncle and aunty’s apartment for the rest of the trip. I’m really glad that I got away with just a ‘misdemeanor’ on my record because that could have changed the course of my life.”
Jesse was earlier than most in first picking up a camera and it’s one of the few things that he has institutionalised education for. “I was a part of an after-school photography club in the fourth grade,” he explains. “That smell of the chemicals in the darkroom and the excitement of watching the photos develop has never left me. I still trip on some of the photos I took back then. It’s kinda awesome when you are a child and your creative expression is completely uninhibited.” Realising that he might’ve unwittingly stumbled on as good a way to earn a crust as any at an early age, when he was old enough to skip the classroom, around 17, Jesse picked up the phone and rung every agency that he could find. Teeth cutting time. “Over the years I must have assisted every type of photographer imaginable,” he says. “Most of the time it was just once and then I would never get called back! I must have been a terrible assistant! But there was one that stuck. He was a mentor to me and we are still close friends to this day.”
Asking someone about their influences always says a lot about them. But not in the way that you’d imagine. It’s pretty much a given that anyone who’s pursued a creative career was initially inspired by someone well known. It’s just the work that you come across first. Whether further down the track they’re humble enough to admit that you liked, Hunter S. Thompson, Kerouac, Basquiat—or in Jesse’s case, Larry Clark—is another matter. “His photos and movies really resonated with me and my group of friends at the time,” Jesse explains. “I mean look at Tulsa, it’s almost 50 years old now and it’s still so powerful and relevant. I still remember picking the book up at a friend’s house and being enthralled and at the same time traumatised by that last page in the book—I won’t go into detail but it’s a really heavy photo. Around the same time I was also turned onto the work of Ari Marcopoulos and Ed Templeton whom I admire very much.”
The reason that we’re getting a crash course in the life and times of Jesse Lizotte is because he’s got an upcoming show at Bali’s most tastefully decorated homestay/gallery The Slow, in collaboration with China Heights Gallery in Sydney. Jesse describes the show as a “medley of sorts,” which is the perfect vehicle for getting to know someone, as we’re all pretty much a medley of sorts. “Photos taken here, in the US, Mexico and Japan,” he continues. “Some are portraits of strangers I met on my travels, others are intimate photos of friends. They are from different places and stages of my life but I feel there is still an underlying narrative that ties them all together.” Perhaps the narrative that ties them all together is the most of Australian characteristics, something that the smog of the Big Apple failed to dull: just having a crack. When asked what the best piece of advice he’d ever received was, Jesse fires back, “Don’t be afraid to fuck up!”