The work of Anne Zahalka, one of Australia’s most highly regarded photo-media artists, often explores and deconstructs familiar images to tell alternative narratives. Now she brings her creative vision to Sydney Living Museums’ new exhibition Street Photography.
Years ago I assembled a photo album as a gift to my mother, setting out her life story from the earliest baby photo in Vienna in 1921. One of the images, sadly, is the last photograph recording her with her own mother, whom she tragically lost in the Holocaust. Among these photographs was a later portrait of my mother with a friend on the streets of Prague in 1947, taken by a ‘street photographer’. It represents an ordinary moment, filled with a sense of freedom after having survived the war, but this freedom was very short-lived. A year later she would flee the communist takeover of Czechoslovakia with her small family. They became displaced persons and migrated to Australia as refugees in 1950.
In my mother’s album were other images by ‘street photographers’, taken in many cities in Europe. These photographs are among the millions taken by street photographers all around the world, including Sydney. This popular form of candid street portrait provides an extraordinary record of the city’s people, each with their own unique history. I wanted to bring this dispersed archive out to the public, to consider how Sydney and its people looked and to honour my parents and the city they migrated to.
These candid portraits offer a vital record of daily life mapped against the urban space of our city. They embody its citizens’ movements and social behaviour through their gait, their clothing and the accoutrements they carry. While the images themselves are not ‘artful’, they document the appearance and mannerisms of the people collectively. They illustrate an exchange (in most instances) between the photographer and the photographed, strangers to each other yet joined in this captured moment.
Within these portraits lie the simple stories of what the people were doing in town that day – meeting with friends, shopping and walking to work – but behind these are complex social histories that we can only partially glean. The accounts by those still living embellish these narratives, providing insight into the times and greater scope for interpreting the lived city.
Photographs record lost moments, lost objects, lost people. They are inherently nostalgic, offering a tangible trace of what was and that which remains. Revisiting these historical images through the descendants provides a way of reframing the past with a contemporary lens. These images prompt a deeper reflection on our forebears, the differences that separate us and the similarities that bind us. While we may stand in the place where our ancestors stood, witnessing the city’s ever-changing nature, these portraits are a way of keeping their memory alive and indelibly etched in the city’s psyche.