- Northside: A Time and Place, by Warren Kirk. Scribe Publications. $35.
It was the libraries of Australia, especially the State Library of Victoria and the National Library of Australia in Canberra, that commissioned photographers to travel to rural towns and to inner suburbia to capture remnants of a vanishing world - its buildings, rituals and its people. Although this form of "nostalgia documentary photography" was not peculiar to Australia, the Australian examples bring with them their own flavour and one can think of the memorable images by Mark Strizic, Joyce Evans, Maggie Diaz, David Moore, Rennie Ellis and William Yang.
Producing monographic anthologies of such documentary photographs also has a venerable tradition in Australia. One of the more memorable recent additions to this list was David Wadelton's Suburban Baroque, in which were assembled his eloquent photographs of vanishing mid-century suburban interiors, many of which were created by post-war immigrants from Europe. Such photographs strike us as humorous and cringe-worthy documentation of working people's aspirations that in retrospect appear somewhere between quaint and ridiculous. There is a considerable appetite for books of this nature, and Suburban Baroque promptly sold out.
Warren Kirk shares almost the identical physical turf to David Wadelton in Melbourne suburbia and like Wadelton, Kirk has been photographing the area over several decades. Kirk's earlier books are Westography (2016) and Suburbia (2018) and his most recent offering Northside (2020) continues in a similar vein.
I have to declare a certain bias: the suburbia documented by Wadelton and Kirk is that of my childhood, where I grew up in the working class suburb of Coburg, a few decades before it became fashionable and underwent a wholesale gentrification. Kirk's images of suburban pride strike an immediate familiar chord within me as we witness proud shopkeepers standing within their workspaces and presiding over the fruits of their labour.
As a student, on my first hitchhiking trip to Greece, on one particularly bitterly cold winter afternoon I got a lift to Florina in northern Greece and seeking cheap lodgings at the local taverna, on hearing that I was from Australia, I was asked, "You must know my cousin Con, he has a taverna in Abbotsford Street?" With considerable embarrassment I had to confess in my broken Greek that I did know Con's Milk Bar and Takeaway in Abbotsford Street in North Melbourne, it was the only place in the area that opened very late. The news was greeted with the confirmation, "See, everyone in Australia knows my cousin Con". I hurriedly flicked through Kirk's photographs to see if Con had made it, but alas he did not, although what must have been his close relative's milk bar with an almost identical facade in Northcote made the cut, as had my barber in Preston.
Kirk's photographs are crisp, unadorned and largely un-manipulated digital photographs. Unlike the great documentary photographer of the urban "social landscape" Lee Friedlander, who frequently produced candid portraits of people and reflections of himself in shop front windows, Kirk is more of a "photographer as hunter", constantly in search of his prey. Once the subject has been spotted, the shopkeepers and house owners are then frequently invited to pose into front of their little worlds. Almost invariably the subject is posed bullseye centre in the composition. Sometimes we see only the facades, the old hoardings, house interiors, vintage cars and details of cherished bric-a-brac that were once objects of pride and now are in the waiting room en route to the op shop. Scarcely anyone photographed for this book is younger than 70, and many are older.
We do have an insatiable appetite for suburban nostalgia; there is something comforting about an old world of stability whose values to us may appear as somewhat quaint with 50 shades of kitsch. Old people surrounded by their precious clutter speaks of a constancy and permanence that is so much in contrast to our world of smoke and mirrors, where the future is uncertain and the present is built on very flimsy foundations.
Technically, nostalgia is a sentimental yearning for a past that is lost that to us, a past that is imbued with security and positive associations. It is a yearning for an unattainable state, but a pleasant daydream. This book represents the triumph of nostalgia over reality. Many of the photographs strike me as voyeuristic in that obviously the photographer has won the consent of his subject, but the subject views their world with pride, while we peer into it with a critical and humorous gaze. For me, it is a trip down memory lane, examining the traces of a quickly vanishing world. The last remaining residents of this world stand firm in their resolve with a stoicism fanned by pride and a conviction that perhaps there was merit in the old ways.