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.

Melbourne: street photos

In the previous post I mentioned that after moving to Adelaide from Melbourne, I would frequently return to Melbourne in the early 1980’s to photograph. I used to catch the overnight Overland train, or hitch hike between Adelaide and Melbourne. I travelled lightly, with just a Leica M4 rangefinder and some 35mm black and white film.

stiletto, Melbourne

These snapshots were mostly photos of various images in shop windows, which I was also doing in Adelaide’s Rundle Mall. Melbourne’s more interesting shop windows had graphic window designs expressing desire, fantasy and consumer dreaming.

The spectacular image culture is the very heart of consumer capitalismThe spectacular image culture is much more than something at which we passively gaze as it increasingly defines our perception of life itself, and the way we relate to others.

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.