Melbourne photo album


Colin Caldwell photo album, State Library of Victoria

This week at the State Library of Victoria I saw an unusual album of 19th century buildings in Melbourne. It was compiled in 1949 by one Colin Caldwell who presented the library with other albums on Victorian buildings in the suburbs and in regional Victoria. The photographs are frankly not very good, as you can see. It was a labour of love but not of professional skill – they are visual notations rather than composed ‘pictures’.

The album has 185 photographs depicting Melbourne in the aftermath of Marvellous Melbourne, the grand colonial city of the 1880s. The streets are empty and a bit forlorn, no people and few cars are to be seen. It’s like an ancient stone city, eerily quiet like in de Chirico paintings. It’s a city I don’t recognize.

The piercing message of the album is it makes clear what we have lost. In the orgy of destruction in the 1960s and 70s when half or more of the best of our 19th century architecture was erased, the city lost its identity. From a great 19th capital, perhaps as unique as Madrid or Budapest, it descended to a no-place, a random aglomoration of structures with no central image. Having no geographical feature like Sydney’s harbour to glue it together, Melbourne needed an architectural image to create a sense of place. It had that largely thanks to the Gold Rush, but got rid of it carelessly in only about twenty years.

Caldwell did a service by creating this archive. But for someone who obviously loved 19th century architecture, he must have suffered in later decades as he watched it being needlessly destroyed.





Neville Brand’s eye


Frame still from Kansas City Confidential

Look at the pinpoint focus in this shot from the 1952 movie Kansas City Confidential. An over ripe crime melodrama, it features some of the most startling closeups I’ve seen.

The tough guy actor Neville Brand is staring down his opponent while Lee van Cleef looks on. What’s unique is that cinematographer George E. Diskant has focussed on only one of Brand’s eyes, while the near and far is out of focus. It was a fairly low budget movie so probably there was no time or equipment to get more depth-of-field. He has focussed on the better lit short side of the face, intensifying the cold stare.

Screen actors have to act from their marks, a point in space which the camera has been focussed on. With depth-of-field of about one inch, Brand must have had good body control and steady nerves. Cinema is about faces.


Strizic flat bed


Mark Strizic, Centreway Arcade, 259 Collins Street, Melbourne, 1960

Here’s a curiosity: Mark Strizic was not long in professional photography when he made this image in Collins St – when there was still a Collins St to photograph.

He had taught himself photography with 35mm cameras, but with architectural commisions, he needed a more adjustable camera with a larger negative. Was he still learning when he produced an under-exposed 5×4 negative with the camera’s flat bed showing at the bottom? He was using an extreme wide angle lens which is racked right back into the body, so I guess the bed could show up in the frame. Did he realize that and intend to crop it out?

I don’t know the answers but I love the picture.