A year or so ago, I attended an opening at the City Gallery on Swanston Street – a space where you can often see small, excellent exhibitions related to Melbourne’s history. On display were photographs of Melbourne and the suburbs, taken in the 1960s and 1970s by street photographer Angus O’Callaghan. Many of the settings were familiar – Flinders Street station, Princes Bridge, the water wall at the National Gallery – but the passage of time gave the scenes an unfamiliar quality. The fashions (office workers in ties and shorts!) , the advertising signage, the unfamiliar landmarks – like the Gas and Fuel building, where Fed Square now stands – made it evident that this was a Melbourne several degrees removed from the city we know now.
O’Callaghan, a schoolteacher by profession, spent several years in the late 1960s and early 1970s wandering the streets of Melbourne and its suburbs, capturing the city and its people. Like the great French photographer Robert Doisneau he worked discreetly, photographing ordinary people going about their daily lives, shunning major dramatic moments in favour of humdrum, ordinary events, in which he found beauty, grace and humour. He hoped that his photographs would be gathered into a book, but was unsuccessful in securing a publisher at the time. At long last, with O’Callaghan now in his nineties, his photographs have been published by Ben Albrecht, in a book titled simply Melbourne.
While anyone with an interest in Melbourne’s history will appreciate the book, with its images of trams and milk bars and Melbourne architecture, the pleasure to be derived from O’Callaghan’s work goes beyond nostalgia. Like many fine street photographers, he has the ability to capture what Cartier-Bresson called ‘the decisive moment’. In the book’s cover image, a group of women crossing Princes Bridge in the rain at dusk are photographed as their images are reflected in the wet pavement, the dreariness of the foreground offset by the colourful neon advertising in the background.
Humour and sympathy suffuse these photographs. We are invited into the lives of ordinary Melburnians, recogniseably like ourselves, but separated from us by almost half a century. In an image of a news stand at Flinders Street, amid the chiaroscuro of the station, the eye is drawn to a shop assistant handing something to a customer. There is something graceful and generous in her gesture that would not be out of place in a Renaissance painting. Viewing that momentary encounter, the viewer wonders: What is being said? What is their story? The interaction – one of millions like it every day – is lifted out of history and made valuable. Like other great humanist photographers, O’Callaghan implies that all human interactions are important, even the most mundane.
One of the most striking images was taken at the MCG in 1971. Ignoring the cricket, O’Callaghan has turned his camera onto the spectators, watching the watchers. Some look bored, others are not paying attention, but the boy in the foreground – peering over outsized sunglasses – has his mouth open in jaw-dropped amazement. What has he seen? An incredible catch? Has Thommo bloodied a batsman? Or has he, perhaps, spotted something missed by everyone else? Here, the unknown ‘decisive moment’ has happened out of shot, but the kid’s reaction grabs and delights the viewer, especially in contrast with the unimpressed expressions of the adults around him.
O’Callaghan has a liking for textual elements – neon signs, newspaper headlines, billboards – which provide an oblique commentary on the images. ‘5 DIE – WILD GUN BATTLE’ proclaims a headline above the heads of weary commuters going through their placid daily routine at Flinders Street. As two bored men wait outside a classic suburban milk bar, newspaper placards tell of lunar exploration, with the important revelation (to Melbourne suburbanites, anyway) ‘MOON SEEMS CLEAN’.
Sometimes, however familiar the landmarks, O’Callaghan invests them with an element of mystery. Occasionally he worked in low light, and liked to capture people in silhouette, or from behind. Rarely does anyone look at the camera. This seems to add to the distance between the viewer and the subject, making us feel like invisible observers of the lives of others. And yet, at the same time, we suspect that we are those others, or could be. This tension between familiarity and strangeness is for me what makes O’Callaghan’s work compelling.