Exhibition dates: 8th April – 2nd May 2009
‘Eastern Market Destruction – 1’
“‘Melbourne – A City in Transition’ is a collection of iconic images of Melbourne city life taken with a sympathetic eye for humanist detail. Strizic accurately depicts the joys and hardships experienced in everyday life with a fresh and living memory. He successfully captures the vicarious essence of suburban life. His portrait of Melbourne includes the city, harbour and river banks – streets and trams, pavements, arcades and lanes, stations and bridges, billboards and facades and public sculpture. We see people going about their daily activities – commuting, shopping at leisure, trading, embracing, conversing, reading the newspaper and visiting the beach. Other works record the demolition and construction of building sites and the changing face of Melbourne, both in society and the urban landscape.”
Text from the exhibition flyer
“In these eloquent studies of light and shadow, Strizic finds beauty in the commonplace – Melbourne’s desolate lanes, street paving, derelict ferries – adopting interesting camera angles, viewpoints and cropping. Through his images, this visual humanist teaches us to observe, to see our surroundings, perhaps with the intention of stimulating us to a higher level of civilisation.”
Emma Matthews, ‘Mark Strizic, Melbourne: Marvellous to Modern’, to be published by Thames & Hudson in association with the State Library of Victoria, September, 2009.
Mark Strizic exhibition at Gallery 101, Melbourne installation views
‘Near Spencer Street – 1’
Social Fact and Urban Vision
This is an exhibition by the veteran Australian photographer Mark Strizic that plays like the coda at the end of a piece of music, the pensive full stop at the end of a well read book. There are some stunning highlight photographs among the 139 black and white silver gelatin prints on display, some good photographs and some fairly mundane images and prints. With some judicious editing of the photographs (perhaps by a third), the exhibition could have had a stronger artistic aesthetic and carried the voice of the photographer with greater projection. As it is the exhibition will be popular drawing in the crowds because of the photographs subject matter and their appeal to both an individual and collective nostalgia.
Examining Strizic’s photographs we note a traditional structure to the picture plane. Unlike the photographs of Eugene Atget who photographed Paris in the early 20th century there is little sublime spatial representation in Strizics photographs, that different angle of alignment that Atget achieved with the positioning of his camera. Further, we observe that unlike an immigrant to another country at around the same time, Robert Frank and America, the photographs follow traditional format: none of the revolutionary experimentation in handheld, grainy images of jukeboxes, cut up people or images of flags appear in this work. We can also say that unlike Helen Levitt’s early black and white images of New York from around the same period there is little ‘joie de vivre’, little engagement with the actual nitty gritty stuff of living in Strizic’s work. The quote below articulates what Strizic’s photographs both address and dismiss:
“To walk in the city is to experience the disjuncture of partial vision/partial consciousness. The narrativity of this walking is belied by a simultaneity we know and yet cannot experience. As we turn a corner, our object disappears around the next corner. The sides of the street conspire against us; each attention suppresses a field of possibilities. The discourse of the city is a syncretic discourse, political in its untranslatability. Hence the language of the state elides. Unable to speak all the city’s languages, unable to speak all at once, the state’s language become momunental, the silence of headquarters, the silence of the bank. In this transcendent and anonymous silence is the miming of corporate relations. Between the night workers and the day workers lies the interface of light; in the rotating shift, the disembodiment of lived time. The walkers of the city travel at different speeds, their steps like handwriting of a personal mobility. In the milling of the crowd is the choking of class relations, the interruption of speed, and the machine. Hence the barbarism of police on horses, the sudden terror of the risen animal.” 1
We observe in the photographs an emphasis on surfaces, on a supreme understanding of light and shade coupled with a certain distance and emotional remoteness from the frenetic hubbub of city life. Empty streets and isolated people fall into shadow and their is little evidence of ‘play’ in the photographs. This is observation not interaction or integration as an immigrant observing Melbourne life. There is no up front presence of disembodied people as in Robert Franks photographs in ‘The Americans’. Here the alienation that pervades the photographs is the alienation of the photographer from the people as much as it is the alienation of the people from themselves. People are shot in silhouette against the sun or shop windows or peering in at unobtainable goods; desolate streets and working class suburbs all express the isolation of city life but at a structured distance from them.
When Strizic’s photographs are good they are very good. His understanding of light is magnificent: light reflects off water, hazes and shimmers off city buildings. The mixing of shadows and sun and his use of the technique of ‘contre jour’ (shooting into the sun) the one thing Strizic does against traditional conventions works to good effect in some of the best photographs. His 1968 night time long exposure photograph of the old ‘Gas and Fuel Building’ is rewarding for the black bulk of the end of the building looming over Flinders Street and the striations of car headlamps. The photograph ‘Flinders Lane’ (1967) shows a delicate use of depth of field where the foreground of cars and person are out of focus, the light bouncing off the edges of the woman, the focus of the image in the far distance. The photograph ‘McPhersons Building’ (1958, below) is one of my personal favourites in the exhibition and is a stunning photograph for the atmosphere the photographer has captured.
‘Macpherson Building – 1’
After a while the use of the ‘contre jour’ technique becomes tiresome. Other photographs simply document a city in transition. These photographs appeal both to an individual nostalgia (‘I used to work in that building’; ‘My grandmother used to live in that street’) and a collective nostalgia where people experience things collectively, “in the sense that [collective] nostalgia occurs when we are with others who shared the event(s) being recalled, and also in the sense that one’s nostalgia is often for the collective – the characteristics and activities of a group or institution in which the individual was a participant.”2
Collective nostalgia refers to that condition in which the symbolic objects are of a highly public, widely shared and familiar character, i.e., those symbolic resources from the past which can under proper conditions trigger off wave upon wave of nostalgic feeling in millions of persons at the same time3 and in this exhibition it is the photographs of a city in transition that trigger this nostalgia, a city now lost to the mists of time. Through these photographs we remember what Melbourne was like at this time collectively.
As Harper has observed
“Nostalgia combines bitterness and sweetness, the lost and the found, the far and near, the new and the familiar, absence and presence. The past which is over and gone, from which we have been or are being removed, by some magic becomes present again for a short while. But its realness seems even more familiar, because renewed, than it ever was, more enchanting and more lovely …” 4
Does this collective nostalgia make the photographs good? This is a pertinent question.
Today, nostalgia has become a cultural phenomenon one centered on a longing for home (home is where you are happy to be!) in a collective sense and promoted through commercialization and the realization that nostalgia sells. The use of the value seeking word ‘rare’ in the exhibition title is instructive in this regard. Only about 25% of the photographs in this exhibition are ‘vintage’ prints, in other words photographs printed within 3 years of the negative being taken. All other photographs have been printed within the last 15 years. Some are ‘Unique state’ gelatin photographs while others are not. What does this mean. Are they are unique state only in this size? What about the common or garden silver gelatin prints in the show? What does the status word ‘rare’ imply for them?
I remember seeing an exhibition of the photographs of Henri Cartier-Bresson in Scotland about ten years ago. Three rooms had large prints of his work. One room just had vintage prints. The contrast was astounding. The room full of vintage prints had an intensity of vision, of his vision at the time he took the photographs evidenced in small jewel like photographs that the three other rooms photographs simply did not possess – through scale, printing and aesthetics. The same question, without any need for an answer, can be posed here. Only the word ‘rare’ demands that answer for the modern prints are just what they are and nothing more.
‘On Princes Bridge’
In conclusion this is a strong show by Strizic that could have been edited and focused in a more rewarding way. Strizic is one of Australia’s best photographers for understanding the significance of place. His use of light is superb but there always seems to be an emotional distance to his photographs. An element of collective nostalgia adds to their documentary appeal but the best photographs do not just record, they challenge and transcend the subject matter taking the work to an altogether different plane of existence.
Mark Strizic, Melbourne: Marvellous to Modern: The Book by Thames and Hudson in association with the State Library of Victoria will be published in September 2009.
Ground level, 101 Collins Street, Melbourne VICTORIA 3000
Tuesday – Friday 10am – 5pm, Saturday 12 – 4pm
T 61 3 96546886 F 61 3 9663 0562
1. Stewart, Susan. On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection. Durham: Duke University Press, 1993, p.2. Prologue.
2. Wilson, Janelle. “Remember when …” a consideration of the concept of nostalgia” in et Cetera. Concord: Fall 1999. Vol. 56, Iss. 3; pg. 296, 9 pgs.
3. Davis, F. Yearning For Yesterday: A Sociology of Nostalgia. New York: The Free Press, 1979, p.222.
4. Harper, R. Nostalgia: An Existential Exploration of Longing and Fulfilment in the Modern Age. The Press of Western Reserve University, 1966, p.120 quoted in Wilson, Janelle. “Remember when …” a consideration of the concept of nostalgia” in et Cetera. Concord: Fall 1999. Vol. 56, Iss. 3; pg. 296, 9 pgs.