black + white, critical writing, Melbourne, photography, topographics, urban

Interview: Stuart Murdoch

May 7, 2021

The conventional history of urban expansion in Australia, still clings to the East coast of the country with large amounts of land in the centre uninhabitable by most white people.  This is a fallacy. We are an urban culture. Melbourne’s suburban growth continues westward, and points east as well at an alarming rate. Left in its wake are the pockets of  inner city spaces, of neglect and desolate. These drosscapes so eminently mirror my own experience of living in Melbourne.

Stuart Murdoch, St Albans, 1990

My exploration of these urban spaces date back to my early life in Melbourne where, as a cab driver I would see parts of Melbourne that many would not. In those days a book called Melways was the cab drivers bible. I had an old copy and a current copy. The old copy would have annotations in it of spaces that I saw and either imagined were in the process of change, or were new or different to me. These places often harked back the Melbourne I remembered in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  Jeff Kennet’s policies radically changed the character of the CBD in particular.  Federal government changes to foreign students studying in Melbourne meant that much of the housing in the CBD was aimed at students for the two universities situated there, RMIT and Melbourne University. Combined with these cultural changes the city of my youth was beginning to become more diverse in terms of population and use. This in turn has impacted on infrastructure use.

These changes drove me to explore and examine in detail the corners and pockets of Melbourne that  many ignored or saw as an eyesore.  My first serious body of work focused on the laneways at the Paris end of Collins Street. These are now all demolished and the area consists of a mix of high end hotels, retail and corporate offices. The Paris end of Collins street as it was known ceased to exist. Moving to live in the west, ie Sunshine which then was considered to be the wrong side of the tracks. This place allowed me to study and observe in even closer detail the same spaces there.

Stuart Murdoch, Kororoit Creek, Sunshine, 1997

My relationship to the urban landscape here in Melbourne, is one of curiosity, an in-between, and incongruous relationship, that while drawing me in visually, frightens me for its future. I am unable to be a disconnected observer however, as I wander the creek beds and deserted factories of the city’s west, or the leafy suburbs of the east. Looking for a connection, a place that soothes or allows me to feel as if I belong, even if it is not ‘picturesque’ but somehow ties together my experience of this city as a living growing and strange entity. I use my photography in an attempt to ‘ground’ myself and see where I am heading, along this, at times exhilarating, yet befuddling journey known as ‘urban life’. 

GS-T: Do you know of other photographers in Australia,  New Zealand, North America or Europe  who are currently involved in a similar project? How does this body of industrial photos fit into the contemporary photographic culture in Melbourne.  Comfortably? Or to one side? 

I feel the notion of urban landscape sits outside the current thinking about art photography in Melbourne. That’s not to say there isn’t a strong photographic culture in Melbourne, there is. The CCP  still underpins the photographic culture of Melbourne. Their exhibition program shows a diverse range of photographies. The MGA is key with their annual Bowness Prize; their collection policy something to strive for. The Ballarat International Foto Biennale has become a much anticipated event on the calendar here in Victoria too. Photo 2020 is bringing international focus to photography culture in Melbourne. The State Library of Victoria has a huge archive of photographs, however their aims differ to those of the contemporary art world.  

Stuart Murdoch, Clifton Hill, 1996

People like Warren Kirk are making interesting work albeit more anthropological in nature. Jesse Marlow makes great work in and around the streets of Melbourne, and while not urban landscape is certainly of the essence of Melbourne seen his way. He talks about the changes in Melbourne in this interview. That’s not to say there isn’t other work being made or curators who aren’t interested in it. I just rarely see them in galleries around Melbourne.

The Australian photographer, Greg Wayn who works with large format film in a similar vein. The Melbourne based photographer Peter Williams explores these ideas. Robert Nelson and Paul Hamer in New Zealand are exploring urban spaces with a similar approach. Believe it or not on flickr.com “The New Topographics” work has a strong presence. Searching this term provides a list of over 30 groups with anything from a few thousand pictures to 140 thousand plus photographs. 

Notes:

1. New Topographics at Wikipedia

2. Keith F. Davis, An American Century of Photography: from dry plate to digital/The Hallmark Photographic Collection, Hallmark Cards, Kansas City, Missouri, 1995, p. 312. (ISBN 0-87529-701-3)

3. ibid

Stuart’s industrial Melbourne portfolio. Notes for further discussion on the significance of the new topographics see this essay.

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