There’s no one here. It’s an industrial park in South Melbourne on a Sunday evening. Cool, early Autumn. Not a sound… but I can hear this song in my head – the same one that’s been stuck in there for days. It’s The War on Drugs: Disappearing.
German filmmaker Wim Wenders uses a distinct phenomenological approach in depicting place, memory, and loss (Silberman, 1995). His 1984 film, Paris, Texas is quintessential of this.
While location scouting for the film Wenders used photography for the first time as an art medium in its own right. The photographs, which feature in his exhibition ‘Written in the West’, explore similar themes to those in the film; of myth and memory, trace and identity.
“Photography lets you capture the essence of a place the first time you see it…. Before you see the picture, you feel it coming to you, you hear its call. Landscapes sometimes are dying to tell their stories, to pass them on….” – Wim Wenders
Though I haven’t seen Paris, Texas for years it is one my favourites. It’s a beautiful film and well worth watching, at the very least for its photography.
The picture below marks the start of my next photographic project, and although it differs in context and intent to Wenders’ work, I recognise the influence and pay my humble appreciation to one of the greats.
See stills from Paris, Texas at Beautiful Stills from Beautiful Films: http://film-grab.com/2010/06/19/paris-texas/
I was out taking photos recently around the industrial parks of South Melbourne. I arrived under the West Gate Bridge at about 8pm. The light was brilliant – the sun was going down and the sky was a rich, spotless blue. I felt inspired looking up at this incredible structure, massive and foreboding… there’s nothing like kilotons of concrete and steel somehow suspended above you to make you feel insignificant. And insignificance happens to be the thing I like to capture in my photos…
So here I am, camera-faced, fervently clicking away. It’s-all-lead-to-this-moment kinda thing… Now, I had taken photos of the bridge further down the harbour earlier on–typical touristy stuff like hundreds of thousands of others would have done before. This space, down this weird little weed-infested street, however, is where those others wouldn’t usually go. It was right at the end of South Melbourne’s industrial wasteland.
I usually find myself in these kinds of places, alone…
“Excuse me!” a voice barks out from the distance.
“Yeah, nah, You can’t take pictures here.”
I pull my camera down. A guy in uniform (I’m being careful with my google-indexible words in this post) appears seemingly out of the ether. I’m taken back by his sudden presence.
“Sorry, I didn’t realise… I’ll get going, my mistake!”
“No, you wait there…”
I watch him, still a bit shocked, and I’m thinking, holy shit, what’s he doing? Is he going to confiscate my camera? I’m on the street and my car is just meters away… but before the thought of making my escape even crosses my mind he comes out again and marches towards me.
“I’m going to have to make you delete those photos.” He says, shaking his head.
“Are you kidding me? I’ll just get going. Forget it.”
“We have you on camera. We’ve got your rego. The fellas spotted you out here before I saw you.”
I turn to him “I’m just a photographer… this is my craft… and you’re going to make me destroy my pictures?”
I show them to him. Naively, I thought I’d try to impress him enough to let me keep them (my own property). A crap strategy but none other came to mind.
“I’m sorry, there’s been threats on this bridge before. I can’t let you leave with those – anti-######### law.”
“What do you mean? It’s just the god damned bridge. You can take the same pictures from hundreds of meters away.”
“But look at this light!” There I go again, pretending other people care about photography enough to empathise and understand the importance of light and weather timing.
This dude is really stuck on it. It’s probably the most exciting thing that’s happened to him all day. I mean, what else do you do under that bridge?
My thoughts are scrambled. I have to protect my photos but I can’t work it out. How can I pretend I’m deleting them when I’m actually not? Shit. But he’s standing right over me, like a teacher watching me pick up rubbish at school.
So I’m fumbling around and soon enough I realise that there’s no way for me to fake it. He’s still and steely. So I highlight all the photos, press DELETE, and sink.
“Thanks, you’re right to go now.”
“You’ve ruined my day, mate.”
He just smiles.
Now, usually with these folks I just smile and keep my cameras conspicuous. They look at me with a sort of fear, like a dog ready to bite in defence, but they usually let me be. Clearly that didn’t work this time. So, if you’ve lost work to this kind of obstinate, overzealous guard there’s a happy ending here and some advice for future encounters.
My colleague suggested this and I’m very grateful he did. If you get busted and are made to screw up your work, don’t take any more photos on that SD card. Go straight home and run a free program like ‘Recuva’ or ‘Pandora’ on the card. I had unfortunately taken a few more shots down the road after so I lost quite a few of my bridge favourites, but the program found all the rest plus some fashion images I shot a nearly year ago, which was odd. But great! Now I only wish I had all the photos from that day but I surely will next time it happens.
I’m not originally from Melbourne but I’ve lived in Abbotsford long enough to appreciate the charm of Nicholson Street with its post war homes, blue stone guttering, and those classic pubs, including The Retreat Hotel that crowns the street up near Johnston.
Further down toward Langridge, there was a school called St Josephs Technical College that operated from 1893 to 1990. I would walk past this school on my way to work each day and though it was no longer in operation it seemed to just belong there. Bolted to the facade of the admin building was a string of large metal type that read “PLEASE SHUT THE GATE”, gothic style with slanted crossbars on the es. It was like a brand. I never really understood it and I didn’t bother to look into it at the time. That iconic statement was just part of the texture of this place.
The texture of Abbotsford is changing. Gentrification is inevitable. St Jospeh’s Tech was sold last year for $9m to developers and has since been demolished to make way for luxury apartments starting at $679K, last time I checked. The previs renders of the new architecture on the developer’s website look like some kind of mothership, landed, taking passengers wealthy enough to some other place, not Abbotsford. And the slick branding of the apartment complex–the billboard with a naïve and sexualised schoolboy in low-key black and white–blatantly taps into the heritage of the college in an attempt to reconcile the gouging of our neighbourhood.
Last year I was lucky enough to enter the school with my camera before the real demolition began. Photographing the decrepit buildings reminded me of how significant our built environment is to our lives and how we too easily take the texture of our surroundings for granted. I was too late to get a picture of that sign and I may never know why it was so prominent. Only in its disappearance does it take on meaning for me–pay attention, “please shut the gtate”.
This is St Jospeh’s Technical College in its final throws.
(click/tap on the images for larger view)
A series of my work published on Melbourne Street