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.

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.