In the moment of Covid-19 many of us are immersed in nostalgia. While we hunger for a time that is not long past and talk about what life was like before the 2020 pandemic, it is easy to forget that time moves constantly and much that was familiar is quickly left behind.
These are ideas that are invoked by Melbourne photographer David Wadelton’s latest book Small Business. On my first viewing of this book, I felt as though I was looking at a time capsule, so many of the images reminiscent of yesteryear, the scenes depicted clearly from another era.
But on closer inspection, I was intrigued to learn that some of these pictures were taken in the past year, the empty café seats and people-less shops testament to Melbourne’s Covid-19 lockdown. Yet that’s only part of the story Wadelton weaves.
As the book unfolds, so too does the tale of Melbourne, its migrants, their suburbs and the cultural enclaves they established. Throughout is the tremor of progress, and in its wake the demolition of family legacies. As captions attest, many of these shops have closed. Others have been bulldozed to make way for high rise apartments, beautiful handcrafted wooden panelling and frosted glass windows shattered under the swing of the wrecking ball. Once vibrant and bustling, those shopfronts that are no more have been preserved thanks to Wadelton’s innate curiosity in the quotidian.
The book also features iconic establishments that have seemingly not changed for decades. Monarch Cakes in Acland Street, St. Kilda and Pellegrini’s in the city attract the next generation with their retro charm, and traditional fare. It is only when you look closely at the streetscape through Monarch’s front window that you detect the modern city and are able to place the image as contemporary. The inward view of Pellegrini’s reflects its heritage; this picture could have been taken in the fifties when the café introduced espresso to Melbourne, which is now arguably the coffee capital of Australia.
This notion of ‘frozen in time’ is a persistent narrative. There is the Chinese café in Chelsea where customers sit at sixties Laminex tables against mint green walls on chairs with metal legs and vinyl seat covers. This is not retro, but the original fit-out.
Then there is the old barber shop with its original antiquated chairs and the fashion boutique with its outdated mannequins in the window. These photographs could be from the archives too if it weren’t for the fact that these stores are also going concerns. Time has stood still as far as décor is concerned, but the next generation has taken the mantle and business continues, not necessarily apace, rather with dogged determination.
Viewed individually, Wadelton’s photographs are fascinating curiosities but together they create a rich historical narrative that conveys how migrants who arrived post-Second World War, and those who followed, have endowed this city with a unique heritage.
The depth of Wadelton’s storytelling is possible because he spends time looking, visiting not once or twice, but multiple times sometimes over many years, slowly studying his subjects. Small Business is the result of quiet and persistent observation and a preparedness to capture things as they are.
There is no artifice. Each picture is indelibly etched with the personalities of those who have put their heart and soul into these businesses: the barbers, bakers, coffee grinders and gelato makers, the tailors, shoemakers and book sellers, the chefs and the shopkeepers.
Wadelton’s pictures also invite the viewer to imagine what these stores must have been like when they were vital meeting places for their communities. When locals still in their slippers would scurry into the corner Milk Bar early in the morning to pick up bread and milk, when going out for a Chinese dinner was a new experience, when having a suit tailored to fit was a sign of coming of age or when the local hardware store would sell you a single screw with explicit instructions on how to fix your grandmother’s door handle.
As a companion to his book Suburban Baroque, Wadelton’s Small Business is in keeping with the exquisite production values of M.33 books. Under the astute direction of Helen Frajman, this Melbourne publisher is a notable champion of Australian photography and Small Business a worthy addition to M.33’s catalogue.
David Wadelton: Small Business
Designed by Yanni Florence
Essay by Professor Natalie King OAM
235 x 235 mm
$63.64 (plus GST in Australia)
Available from: https://m33.net.au/category/books/