In more ways than one, I’ve been trying very hard to get back into Sydney. Not only as a place to live, work and enjoy myself, but also as a photographic subject.
Sydney is certainly a lot more fun these days. Despite the inability to purchase decent ecstasy anywhere in Australia, the countless new bars that have opened in the last few years since the licensing laws were changed has made the place a hell of a lot more livable.
The city also looks a lot better thanks to a great deal of inner-city gentrification and the completion of prestige developments and re-developments. This process really began back in the late nineties with the first efforts to beautify the city centre in preparation for the 2000 Olympics; widening and repaving pavements, replacing lighting, redirecting traffic flow, planting hundreds more trees and generally cleaning up a lot of ugly crap. The property boom of the mid to late 90s not only saw the filling in of the many unsightly holes left by projects which stalled in the 89/90 recession, but also attracted architects such as Renzo Piano and Norman Foster to the city. Anyone who remembers the ugliness of the CBD before this process began will no doubt be thankful for the transformation – perhaps with the exception of Darling Harbour, an overdeveloped nightmare. At the start of the 90s, almost no one actually lived in the city centre, and the chances of finding a supermarket or convenience store were next to none. Now it is a vibrant place that is alive with people in the small hours – for better or for worse. Irrespective of one’s opinion of the nature of the activities, the type of culture that has emerged, or the calibre of the people dwelling in the city, it is far better in its living incarnation, than the dead and, let’s face it, dangerous place it used to be.
Of course, the unfortunate upshot of all this investment and development was skyrocketing rents. This phenomenon, however, is by no means a necessary consequence of the improvement and renovation of public spaces, but rather it is driven by the selfish habit of Australians to speculate on property and buy for the sake of investment rather than to secure a home in which to live.
But I digress, for I came here to talk about taking photographs. Recently, I’ve been trying to get back into shooting this city, which, for a few years left me quite cold. The problem often lay in knowing where to start and why. What is most interesting about the place? The people, the geography, the architecture? I generally find people to be the most interesting subjects in any place, but in a modern, cosmopolitan western city, are they in any way different to those of other such cities? Sydney certainly has many diverse subcultures and scenes; inner city hipsters, inner westies, surfies, bogans, cashed-up bogans, office-workers, city professionals, winers and diners, foreign students, clubbers, surfies, grommits, beach-bums, goths, westies, rev-heads, fixies, transvestites, swing dancers, wanna-be latinos, hip-hoppers, theatre-goers, glamour-pusses, café-crawlers, jocks, hoons, thugs, prats, geeks, gits, princesses and parasites, and everywhere, the disconnected, disjointed, unemployed and homeless. It’s difficult to know where to start, and occasionally they’re all thrown together in the endlessly fascinating, chaotic and democratic mess of places like George Street or the Pitt Street Mall, where most will venture at some point, whether they like it or not.
George Street, despite its relative ugliness, is not a bad place to start because of its mix of characters. The area around Town Hall in particular is, without wishing to be too disparaging, a magnet for freaks. Along much of the length of George Street, however, it is not an easy place to shoot. The subjects are many and diverse, but outside of midday, when the sun is overhead, or in the late afternoon, when, for example, the towers of World Square reflect the setting sun onto the pavements, this north / south canyon is in shadow. I’ve spent many hours hanging around on the pavement in George Street and in Chinatown, but with mixed results. Frankly, I’m a little tired of the place. There are, of course, more obvious and picturesque subjects; the prestige buildings, the harbour, the beaches, but they either have a magazine neatness and sterility, or a clichéd obviousness about them that ultimately leaves me unsatisfied. It’s nice enough to catch a good sunset around the Opera House, but without a unique and curious foreground subject, it all feels a tad pointless and touristic.
Often the best strategy is to head out with no expectations and shoot whatever seems interesting. I’ve been trying to do this recently, but again it’s difficult to know where to start, nor in which direction to walk once having started. There are the various “villages” of Sydney; Balmain, Leichhardt, Surry Hills, Erskineville and Glebe to name a few, yet unless some spectacular combination of light, weather, subject and drama occurs, seemingly by random, they can come up rather boringly flat. Without access to a car, it is difficult to go further afield at the drop of a hat. It would be nice to spend some time in places like Lakemba, Strathfield, Ashfield, Cabramatta, Blacktown or Liverpool, which have their own particular ethnic concentrations, but I haven’t quite managed it yet. Perhaps I’ve simply been unlucky in the last few years in Sydney, for surely any old place will do, provided one is fortunate in witnessing some utterly random and unpredictable ballet of chance elements. Who knows quite where a fight will occur, a car crash, or a wedding spill onto the street? I’ve learned many times that the planned and deliberately targeted subjects can give the most disappointing results. The key element is, more often than not, having time and mobility at your disposal and stumbling upon an event or play of light.
So what exactly am I banging on about? Basically, that Sydney, a city which ought to provide a diverse range of subjects, is proving disappointingly difficult to shoot at the moment. I’m not sure if it’s me, my choice of locations, my failure to make the most of good subjects, or the fact that the subjects are not that interesting to me. Having been spoiled in places like India, Vietnam and Cambodia in the last few years, where the people and backdrops were so fascinating in themselves as to bring a photograph alive, I sometimes wonder if the people of Sydney are just too intrinsically dull to be worth shooting. Inside my head is a frustrated photographer shouting “Come on, do something! Dance for me!” only, much of the time they seem just to be walking on down the street minding their own business and looking any old bunch of westerners. I wish they’d do something ever so slightly theatrical or curious more often.
One thing I which continually frustrates me is cars. Oh man, cars! Grrr. My intense dislike of the things is always significantly enhanced whenever out on a shoot. Not only are most cars ugly, misshapen lumps, with so little thought put into their aesthetics, sacrificed no doubt in favour of aerodynamics, but they are quite simply everywhere. It’s almost impossible to find a street without the hideous things parked all along its length. They block views and make it nigh impossible to shoot from a low angle across a pavement. They are continually trying to steal the show by driving past, sitting in the field of vision, sticking their ugly noses, bald pates and shiny foreheads into shots. How much finer streets would look without them!
In some places the strata laws dictate that people cannot hang their washing out on balconies, nor drape clothes over railings, in order to maintain a boringly sterile appearance. Clothes, however, add colour and individuality; they flutter, create shadow and movement, they can have both a simple homely, domestic quality, or a diaphanous beauty. Cars, however, are almost universally hideous. In my ideal world they should all be hidden away in garages, or not kept at all. Antique vehicles, in which form seemed more important than function, might just get a look in, but the average modern car has all the attractiveness of a fridge with wheels. Put simply, I detest cars. They pollute, they kill, they’re awfully noisy, and they are responsible for ruining thousands and thousands of photographs the world over.
But again, I digress… And so, of late, I’ve been wandering about trying to catch some interesting shots, with varying degrees of success. I’ve had some success with workers before, especially in some of the more graphic and gruesome industries – meat-markets, fish-markets, industrial workers, construction sites – and perhaps this is where I need to direct my energies. I’ve thought about heading into more clubs and bars, yet these people are well enough documented in publications like TheThousands and the social pages of the Sunday rags, and I don’t think we need more photographs of hipsters and clubbers. Having said that, why am I kidding myself that anyone needs more photographs of anything?
Anyways, I have already ranted far too much on this subject. Here are some more recent shots, along with a few not so recent ones, from the last three years.
Have a nice day!