The Photograph Explained: Hanging in the Balance and Flemington Post Office by Lloyd Shield
Flemington Post Office.
Hanging in the Balance
Silver gelatin photographs.
Planning and making an image is what LF photographers do. But to me the most fulfilling bit is when a whole bunch of images are made with a unifying theme or subject, or when images combine to tell a story. So it was with the images shown, which come a project documenting the industrial heritage of the western suburbs of Melbourne, and a project photographing Victoria’s surviving 19th century post offices.
Cathedrals of Industry
‘Hanging in the Balance’ shows the inside of a large industrial weighing scale and was one of 30 images in the 2011 exhibition ‘Cathedrals of Industry’. This was my response to the inexorable destruction of the industrial heartland of Melbourne’s west, threatening the loss of a whole architectural language. Often, and paradoxically, the value and intrinsic beauty of apparently mundane objects or structures are not recognised until they are gone. Recognition of value before loss sometimes provokes repurposing, but sadly this is not commonly enough.
In 2004, I was given permission to photograph the refurbished Walter Burley Griffin designed incinerator in Moonee Ponds as part of a student folio. Other students photographed fashion or edgy stuff. I photographed an incinerator. Sad, but it ignited an interest in the photography of industrial heritage buildings and objects.
Almost all images in the exhibition were made using a Wisner Traditional 8 x 10 wooden field camera with a 5 x 7 reducing back. Why? Because I wanted to enlarge the images to create more impact in an exhibition setting and my enlarger takes only up to 5 x 7 negatives. In a neat parallel story, an early 1900’s Kodak 2D 5 x 7 back was modified to fit the 8 x 10 camera by my mentor and friend from my former professional career. Our respective extra curricular passions of fine woodwork and LF photography converged in a very practical way. In retrospect, but never-the-less predictably, lugging an 8 x 10 with associated gear up and down the steps of old industrial buildings was not the smartest of plans.
I think it was on the fourth floor of an old industrial complex that I spotted the balance scales, denuded of their dignity and sitting alone just off a windowed corridor. The corridor was dulled by clouds covering the sun as I walked past, not giving much, if any, thought to making an image. But when I got to the end of the corridor and turned around the whole world had changed. In an instant the lifeless gizzards of the scales had turned into a dazzling gem as the emerged sun picked out the inner workings. Knowing that the sun would soon retreat again I hastened with whatever speed is possible with an 8 x 10 to set up and compose the image. Visually it was high contrast with the dark shadows starkly accentuating the glint from smooth steel. Given that my brain seems to seek out high contrast, photographing this was right up my alley. Printing was another matter.
The image was used on the advertising poster for the exhibition, firstly because I like the graphic quality with the strong curves and lines, but perhaps more importantly, it symbolises the state of our industrial architecture ie literally ‘hanging in the balance’.
Post Office Portraits – Victoria’s 19th Century Postal Heritage
Since 1888 the Flemington Post Office has stood boldly on its very acutely angled corner. It featured in an Australia Post Historic Post Office series of stamps in 1982.
I moved to a nearby suburb and drove by it on a number of occasions, but it was not until a few years later after commencing LF photography that I thought about photographing it. It called for an early morning or late afternoon shoot, but in the winter-spring months to avoid the canopy of the massive tree outside obscuring the facade. Being inexperienced in LF photography it took me about 4 visits to get most of the technical things to come together – 4 x 5 Tachihara with a 90 mm lens on a recessed lens board with front rise, base tilt up and front and back tilts to try to keep the film and subject planes as parallel as possible under tight circumstances.
When I showed the images to my building designer son who was at the time working with a heritage architect he asked had I seen the Fitzroy North Post Office (PO). I did not recall it, so a quick trip revealed yet another acutely angled corner with another 19th century gem (although looking a little sad for want of a coat of paint). Seeing this beauty resolved a question that I had sat on for a year or two. The advertising flyer for a 2005 exhibition by the renowned American photographer Karl Koenig, of gum oil fame, featured an amazing photogravure image of an acutely angled street corner, dramatically accentuated, and a wonderful Victorian era building. The image name was ‘Stella Artois’. My mystery was resolved. It was the old Fitzroy North PO which at the time had been repurposed to a privately owned bar.
After the Fitzroy North shoot the obvious question was how many other pre-1900 post offices are extant in Victoria. After a quick search through Heritage Victoria, the National Trust and a few other sources, the first 30 or so were identified. I figured I might have missed a few but set out to photograph them all. My first mistake was not to realise that for every building identified via heritage listings there were another 3 or 4 that were not listed. Identifying these sometimes relied on asking the postmaster or postmistress, or an old codger in the street in some remote Victorian town whether there is another Victorian era post office nearby. Six years and 90 post offices later I think I might be getting closer to the end.
The project required some planning and individual shoots required planning. An existing building was sometimes not the pre-1900 structure which had been destroyed by fire or re-development. Although there are some very good examples of local communities identifying and recording the history of their key buildings, sadly this is often not the case. Particularly for far distant locations it was helpful to have available a smartphone app to identify the best time of day for a shoot. Knowing that an afternoon shoot would be good for one PO but a shoot between 9am and 11am would be good for another allowed creation of a logical itinerary for a trip.
I commenced the project when my only format was 4 x 5, and have continued with that. I wanted the images not to be clones of 19th century images but never-the-less to have the feel of the period and to be sensitive to the era of the architecture. I chose to shoot full frame, so as to be able to print the film holder border. I was naively unaware of some of the headaches this would create but it did engender a certain discipline. These were not to be streetscapes, and nor would I be shooting or printing to emphasise fluffy white clouds. Composition was to be tightly cropped in camera to show the most aesthetically pleasing aspect of the building dictated by the surrounding buildings, traffic, parked cars, people, overhead wires and trees. To show the architectural anatomy in all its glory, or in its ordinariness, was the overarching imperative. A quick decision had to be made on arrival, usually in the main street of the town or suburb. Commonly the best available perspective was from directly opposite.
Images were shot on Kodak TMX 100 rated at 80, developed in D76 1+1 and contact printed onto Fomatone MG Classic 131. Early on I did lith prints but with variable success in containing the aesthetics to a reasonably uniform standard. Final prints are now silver gelatin with thiocarbamide toning.