As mentioned in the posts here and here on my low key Rethinking Documentary photography blog I am involved in a collaborative photographic project with Stuart Murdoch on changing Melbourne. An exhibition at the Atkins Photo Lab’s gallery in Adelaide during South Australia’s 2018 SALA Festival is the first public showing of this collaborative body of work.
Melbourne, like New York in the 1930s, is changing very fast and the currently existing parts of the historical, industrial Melbourne will be gone tomorrow. These are the familiar things a city that are overlooked until they are gone. Bernice Abbott’s well known 1930s large format photo project, Changing New York, is a historical reference point in spite of the truncated nature of the 1939 book. Many of Abbott’s photographs from this body of work are now in the public domain, as they have been made available online by the New York Public Library. These photos are a reference point for our photographing a changing Melbourne, even though there are big differences between the two cities and the photographic projects.
One of the key differences with Bernice Abbott’s Changing New York work is that her focus was on architecture whereas ours is looking at the transformation of the city from the perspective of the industrial wastelands. This is the topographical perspective on a city that is rapidly changing in front of our photographic eyes.
The conceptual reference point is one of the layers of history that exist in a particular place at a particular moment; a history for people to remember and see it as it was; and to foster an awareness that the ideology of progress involves a reckless erasure of the past.
There is a commonality in subject matter. This is a rapidly, changing city from the perspective of preserving its history of its changing built environment in which is nineteenth century buildings are being demolished, altered or replaced with large modern buildings; only a few people in the images; large format photography; framing and focusing each picture on site over manipulating negatives back in the studio; an awareness that Melbourne is a rapidly changing city and is still a young one; an emphasis on the relationship between the old and new; and a digging beneath the surface of things.
At the moment I do not know of many photographic reference points for this kind of urban project, especially ones that are contemporary rather than historical. One possibility is Thomas Struth’s deserted streetscapes in Düsseldorf and New York as these photographs represent the history of a place. These streets, which were photographed from the same symmetrical perspective in the middle of a street looking down to its vanishing point, and early in the morning so the scene would be deserted, are of the character of ordinary, everyday architecture in different districts
These photos coincided with the “New Topographics” photographer’s group show in Rochester, New York, in 1975, which documented the social incursion into a landscape still partly wild, and did so critically, under the negative sign of domination— the dismal sprawl of standard-plan suburbia and industrial parks into the furthest reaches of the American outback. The landscape in the American West was changing rapidly and this industrial transformation had an aggressive uprooting and displacing character.
At this stage I am not sure of other similar reference points.