SYDNEY CITY: Flick back through your old family photo albums and it’s possible, if you’re a Sydneysider, that you’ll find a snap of one of your family members walking down George Street or past the retail emporium Mark Foys.
The photo might be like this one of my mother (pictured) as a teenager looking fresh in her summer dress with a line of sailors trailing behind her. Or maybe your photo is similar to the one I have in a box somewhere of my maternal grandparents captured midstride in their hats, gloves and overcoats, looking stout and stern.
I say it’s likely you’ll find a similar photo in your albums because I know that when the Museum of Sydney (MOS) put the call out for photos like this last year, they were swamped and had to tell people to stop sending them pictures.
I also know that, in 1935 alone, there were more than 10,000 street photos being bought each week in New South Wales. And that between 1933 and 1936 one company alone sold 2 million photos.
I know all this from visiting MOS’s wonderful Street Photography exhibition that elicited hundreds of photos from private family albums and is displaying them alongside contemporary street photography by Sydney photomedia artist Anne Zahalka.
The exhibition immediately transports you back in time to the Depression, WWII and postwar years. There’s the fashion, the handbags, the servicemen, the migrants, and the children decked out in their Sunday best. There are the couples arm-in-arm and the brothers side-by-side – caught in an instant.
What you can’t see, of course, is the person behind the lens, and how slick they had to be to raise their 35mm cameras and capture their subjects as they strode by. The photographer then had to quickly hand over a card to the person, and direct them to the kiosk where they could purchase the shots.
Australian authors Darcy Niland and Ruth Park were photographed on College Street in 1942 – not long after they were married and embarking on their literary careers.
Brothers Frank and Pat Doughty were aged five and three when they were snapped by a street photographer outside Customs House in Sydney’s Circular Quay. At 81 and 79, the brothers happily worked with Zahalka to recreate the moment from eight decades before – donning similar shorts and flat caps.
The exhibition was inspired by a portrait of Zahalka’s mother Hedy, taken on the streets of Prague in 1947, less than a year before she fled the city following the Communist coup.
Zahalka recreated this image – photographing her daughter Alice, and Alice’s friend, Sophie Wild, in Pitt Street Mall. It was a moving shoot, she said, knowing what lay behind the portrait of her mother in Prague – who survived the Holocaust but was later forced to flee to Australia as a refugee.
In fact, Zahalka restaged nine of the original images sent into the MOS featuring the descendants of the original subjects, posing where their relatives once stood.
Zahalka has said that she thinks photography is “always about loss: lost moments, lost events, lost people, lost things”. And I confess it was loss that I felt most keenly as I viewed the candid moments caught on film by Sydney’s street photographers of the past and as I reflected on the brief seconds they had captured in the lives of my own relatives, all of whom have since died.
I felt melancholy too that this kind of street photography declined – a demise which began when home photographers gained access to superior cameras in the 1960s and continues with mobile phones and their owners’ ubiquitous selfies.
If you want to take a closer look at this gem, you’ll need to be snappy as it closes on July 21.