Melbourne: street + documentary

Some of my black and white Melbourne street photos from the late 1970s/early 1980s have appeared on a couple of previous blog posts–eg., here and here. The picture below is from the same period.

The conventional account holds that street photography positions itself as art whereas documentary photography is more concerned with injustice or narrative. The former tends to be spontaneous and it seeks to capture a moment that would have, without the photographer’s intervention, gone unnoticed. Documentary photography is more considered and ethical in its approach. Street photography is associated with the imagination (the free play of the faculties) and the poetic, whereas documentary photography is associated with truth, matter of fact and empirical knowledge.

alleyway, Fitzroy, Melbourne

Street photography is closely associated with a snapshot aesthetic or more broadly a snapshot culture that breaks down the borders between the private and public realms. A minimal description is a fragmentary photo in space and time with a loose and informal composition that is coupled to the semantic area of a photographer shooting or hunting with a portable, handheld 35mm camera searching for meaningful, memorable moments.

Conventional art history holds that the style of street photography became recognized as a genre in its own right during the early 1930s with figures such as Henri Cartier-BressonBrassaï and André Kertész,  While there are precedents, and areas of overlap with documentary and architectural photography, street photography is associated with the photographer’s skill in capturing something of the mystery and aura of everyday city living. Some hold that the human figure becomes the street photograph’s defining feature. Robert Frank is seen as the central figure in this tradition.

Photography at Kew Depot (in the 1970s)

As mentioned in the previous post I was stationed at the Kew Depot in the mid-to late 1970s, when I was working on the Melbourne trams and studying photography at Photography Studies College (PSC) in South Melbourne (now Southbank). I was studying part time at PSC just after its name changed to PSC from the Gallery School of Photographic Art. That would have been around around 1978. Haynes started his school in the early 1970’s.

Working on the trams were quite a contrast to being an economist in New Zealand. The former was a working class world in industrial Melbourne and the mid-to late 1970s was a period when the LNP Coalition under Malcolm Fraser was in power. I remember my political shock at Fraser taking a confrontational approach to the management of industrial matters, implementing an inflation-first approach (contributing to unemployment), repressive labour laws, and in 1982 a national wage freeze. 

No 840, Kew Depot

Whilst at Kew Depot I made the odd b+w portrait of some of the people who worked on the trams, or who were also based at the depot. These were in a naive social documentary style, and they would have been made towards the end of the 1970s, as course at Photographic Studies College required the students to photograph in colour transparency using an Olympus SLR camera purchased through the college.I would take the film to be processed to Bond Colour (now Bond Imaging) in Richmond.

Melbourne tramway snapshots

The first snapshot section of The Bowden Archives and Other Marginalia will start with some of the tramway photos. These will build around this one in the previous post, and they will be based on some more of the pictures made in the Kew Depot.

An example:

George, Kew Depot, Kew

The above picture is inside the operational office. This is where you waited until the tram you were working on stopped outside and walked to it to start your shift.

No 4607, Kew Depot

I was based at the Kew Depot when I worked on the tramways. It was all shift work. I worked the early morning (5am start) and the evening (5pm start) shift on alternate weeks rather the broken shifts at the commuter peak in the morning and evenings. I usually walked to work from Fitzroy in the morning.

This kind of shift made me quite tired. I did it so that I could attend the part time courses at the Photography Studies College and take photos during the day for the courses.

Melbourne snapshots

As mentioned in an earlier post of this blog the first section of The Bowden Archives and Other Marginalia consists of street photography or snapshots that were made made in Melbourne and Adelaide with 35mm cameras and black and white film. This section has been reframed as part of a snapshot culture or snapshot aesthetic and it leads into the second Bowden section.

In the 1970s, when the American cultural invasion was in full swing, I was living in Fitzroy, working on the Melbourne Trams as a conductor. and studying at Photographic Studies College. Whilst I was working at the Kew Depot I made a few photos of the people I worked with. This is one:

2148, Kew Depot, Melbourne 1976

As is well known the early 1970s saw a revitalisation of art photography in Australia, mirroring similar developments in the US and Britain. This ‘photo boom’, as it is known, witnessed the establishment of a number of specialist galleries with curators dedicated to photography; the establishment of the Australian Centre for Photography in Sydney; and the development of photography courses in Australian art schools.

This ‘photo boom’ was part of the broadening of art history in the sense of the shift from art history’s Eurocentric approach to Australian art in the departments of art history as well in the art galleries. Before the 1960s, which saw the first widely accessible book, Bernard Smith’s Australian Painting 1788-1960, there was scarcely any general awareness of Australian art.

from street to topographic photography

In looking over the non-Bowden  1980’s  photographic archives  for the proposed book on Adelaide photography  I realised that I was in the process of making  a shift  from  the then  fashionable  street  style photography of the 1970s to  a more topographic approach. Fashionable in the sense that New York in the 1960s was the centre of  photography with  Winogrand, Friedlander and Meyerowitz  laying down  the classic grooves for street photography.

This is an example of the street  photography  in Adelaide’s CBD that was made from a public space in the 1980s:

Franklin St, Adelaide

Street photography  is   candid photography –in this case it is a photo  of an office worker walking west along Franklin St after  leaving  the office in the late afternoon. This was  during an Adelaide  summer and it was a time  when white socks and sandals were the  summer fashion for men.  This fashion was much more practical in 40 degrees heat  than the traditional tie and suit.

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Bowden: the Kelly Dance

After talking to a prospective publisher, the title of the manuscript  has been changed from Bowden Archives and other Marginalia to The Bowden Archives.  This  cut  down means that the book will be about Bowden as  the non-Bowden images–eg., the coastal beaches, Port Adelaide, Adelaide hills  etc– have now been pruned from the draft manuscript. They have been shifted to the historical section of the proposed Adelaide book.

I have been going through and scanning the 35mm negatives in the archive.   The picture below  is from the Kelly Dance–an evening of jigs and reels —  that was put on by  The Bush Dance Theatre:

boy at Kelly Dance
boy at Kelly Dance

This evening was sometimes in the 1980s. Unfortunately,  I cannot recall where the musical evening  was held or when.   Continue reading

at Port Adelaide

One of the places that I used to visit and photograph was Port Adelaide and along the Port River estuary.   I was initially attracted to the architecture of the  industrial and commercial sites along and nearby the polluted Port River, as these signified the drivers of  modernity in South Australia. Both sides of the  Port Adelaide River  had been zoned   as  sites for  industrial expansion and the industry that was there used the river  as a drain.   In the 1980s large sections along the banks of the river were empty sites,  and they were, to all intents and purposes,  edge lands. These, however,  were not  empty urban landscapes evacuated of people.

silos + Holden, Port Adelaide
silos + Holden, Port Adelaide

Living in the suburbs, driving a Holden with free time at Port Adelaide for play is what  the historical experience of  being modern was in Adelaide. Those who were making  the cars, the washing machines and the TV sets could also buy them.

Photography, if you like,  was where art and the categories of  everyday life met. This stood in marked contrast to the avant-garde at the Experimental Art Foundation, which along with the major art institutions and the practitioners of a post modernist staged and fictive modes of photography  associated photography with a simplified and enfeebled realm of an outmoded pictorial style and a naive account of representation.

On their account realism, with its facile assumptions  of visual transparency and deceptive form of  natural representation  equated realism with positivism’s view that the pictures of the world are in some uncomplicated sense  reflections of the world.  Realism was deemed to be out of date and second rate—  it belonged to a dingy corner of a dusty Victorian cupboard—- rather than realism being viewed  as a process of critical recovery  and historical remembrance.  Continue reading

Glenelg’s piazza

As Adelaide was in the process of becoming a post-industrial city haunted by the decline of its manufacturing industry and growing working-class disaffection its  only  genuine gathering place–or piazza—  for people  was  the beach side suburb of Glenelg. It was a place where people  accepted their differences to enjoy their leisure with  picnics,  bathing  and walking in the sun.

Glenelg, Adelaide
Cruising Glenelg

The tram route from Victoria Square to Moseley Square in Glenelg was all that remained of Adelaide’s tramways network. This  had been pulled up to make way for the  motorcar. The tram  was basically  for tourists.  During the summer the  tram was packed with people going to and from  the beach for  a  day’s outing. I would often catch it  to Glenelg in the afternoon to hang out on the piazza with my cameras. Continue reading

Past futures: the beach

Past Futures is the working title for the third section of The Bowden Archives and Other Marginalia. This section maps the space outside of Adelaide’s CBD and Bowden-Brompton. It represents an escape from the confines of  the city, sometimes in  the form of  day trips to the Adelaide Hills and Mt Lofty Ranges; trips to Melbourne and along the River Murray.

Escaping the confines of Bowden  during the summer heat was necessary and I would often go to Adelaide’s coastal beaches in the late afternoon. I would usually park the Kombi at  Largs Bay in the late afternoon and walk along the flat open stretch of sand to North Haven and back with Fichte, my standard poodle.

couple, Larg's Bay
couple, Largs Bay

This was a time when people sunbathed  on the beach and they didn’t really worry about effective sunscreen to prevent melanomas and skin cancer, even though the Slip, Slop, Slap!  health campaign was launched in 1981 by the Cancer Council as part of its SunSmart campaign.    The beach was a hedonistic holiday zone–a shared space of relaxation–with minimal shade from the burning sun.
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Bowden portraits

These are a couple more  Bowden portraits  that  supplement  the ones currently  in  the  Bowden portfolio on my  website. I didn’t do many formal portraits.

As I mentioned in the Preface I worked part time at Conroys Smallgoods  in Bowden to buy the  camera equipment to photograph Bowden.  I recall making  several portraits in the factory after we  had finished  working on Saturday morning.

Joe, Conroys Smallgoods
Joe, Conroys Smallgoods

Joe was the production foreman. He lived  in the Salisbury/Elizabeth area of the northern suburbs of Adelaide. He worked  long hours in the factory. It was a tough hard job.

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