How I got interested in shadows

I visit a lot of museums as part of my job, many of them hold photographs and artefacts relating to late nineteenth and early twentieth century life in Victoria. I write reports about museums, but also have a lot of art and writing ideas inspired by my visits.

Reading the book Black Kettle and Full Moon by Geoffrey Blainey made me think about light in relation to history – he talks about how important moonlight was prior to electric lighting (for example country dances were planned for full moons so people could walk home, likewise some Kelly Gang raids coincided with a full moon).

Thinking about sunlight in the history of Melbourne, I started doing drawings of shadows in historic photographs of Melbourne (see next post, below). It was an enjoyably meditative process and got me really looking at the shadows. Moments in the Sun was my first attempt to turn this project into an art installation.

Standing in Sunlight

Some notes based on drawing shadows in historic photos of Melbourne streetscape

I started drawing the shadows in historic photographs and soon discovered that shadows are much more abstract than I thought they would be. Mostly the shadows are just blotches. Sometimes they are readable, in an elegant silhouetted distortion.

Maybe shadows only take their form once, or do shadows recur? Almost? The same milk cart, at the same time of day, on a sunny morning the next year? Or the same guy leaning on a pole on his way home from work, in the same cap?

(I started to wonder about why the photographs I was looking at were taken. Anne-Maree Willis’ book Picturing Australia, A History of Photography, describes how many nineteenth century photographs of Melbourne were commissioned to show the growth of Melbourne as a great commercial and cultural city. Hence the streetscapes and civic buildings. There are also lots of photographs of shops and small businesses, with men standing proudly out the front, sometimes with their families. Photographers would go door to door drumming up business and shopkeepers would commission a photograph, perhaps to send back to the old country, to show their success.)

The shadows in the photographs follow the form of changing surfaces on the ground– distorted by bluestone channels or timber road surfaces, or water (Elizabeth Street, the reclaimed stream, in flood).

Some shadows are interesting due to gaps in shadows, for example shadows of tall buildings in Collins Street, with a gap for what appears to be a picket fenced front garden of a residential house.

Some shadows are cast by people posing self consciously for the photograph, others are cast by people who just happened to be whizzing past on a bicycle.

Many images seem to feature men standing around. There are definitely more shadows of men in the street than shadows of women.

Most photographs feature shadows of horses – with carts trundling along or waiting to be loaded up, or with cabs waiting for passengers.

Some photographs show the changed nature of urban streetlife. People saunter down the middle of the road, cross the street any which way, and chat in the middle of the road (probably moving out of the way when a horse drawn carriage or cart appears.) There appears to be a lot of life led in the street, with street sweepers, coffee carts, and newspaper carts casting shadows in the photographs.

Most people are wearing a hat – virtually everyone actually. Full skirts cast strange bulbous shadows.

For the very early photos absolute stillness would have been required for those people posing (in studios special hidden vices for keeping the head still were used.).

Nearly all the people casting shadows in the photographs I looked at would be dead by now. Long gone. These photographs make up some of the remaining evidence of their lives. Apart from their descendants, whoever they are.

A few photographers have made use of shadows, for example a lacy shadow of branches and leaves used to frame a shot, a la the Picturesque aesthetic, but most of the shadows are incidental; they fall where they fall.

Making the most of natural light was central to the business of photography prior to electric light and flashes. Early photographic studio used light wells, trapping sunlight to create clear and flattering light.

Out on the streets some people appear to be casting shadows because they are out enjoying the sun. There is a photo I am thinking of where two men are talking, and I can imagine them moving, perhaps without noticing it, into the winter sun.

The people casting the shadows in these old photographs were here in Melbourne, bumping along in a carriage, or riding a bicycle, walking where we walk. Standing in sunlight.

Selected References

This project is an intermittent combination of looking, drawing, painting (painting out everything but shadows), reading and writing.

This is some of the some of the material I have looked at so far – books, websites, collections and exhibitions.

BOOKS – of photographs, sources of images so far. Only Melbourne Now and Then provides photo credits for individual photographs.

A New City, Photographs of Melbourne’s Land Boom, Ian Morrison (ed), The Miegunyah Press (MUP) 2003

Melbourne Now and Then, Heather Chapman and Judith Stillman, Thunder Bay Press, 2005 PRC Publishing London. Photos credited

The Streets of Melbourne From Early Photographs, Joe Murray photography design, Peter McIntosh text, The Herald And Weekly Times, to accompany City Walk and 150th anniversary of Melbourne. Pictures from La Trobe Collection Mitchell Library and RHSV.

The Centenary Collection, Melbourne Town, A Boom City in Old Australia
The Five Mile Press. Text Ross Hudson and Associates, Noble Park 2000

BOOKS – other

Brilliant; the evolution of electric light by Jane Brox . A superficial overview set in the US but with parallels in Melbourne. I was mostly interested in the early chapters on candle and lamplight – and the impact of dusk and the inequal distribution of evening light. Not much on sunlight e.g. use of lightwells in architecture, photography.

The Birth of Melbourne, edited by Tim Flannery, which features primary sources describing early Melbourne; a very vivid sense of the developing city of Melbourne is evoked.

Black Kettle and Full Moon, Geoffrey Blainey, Penguin 2004

The Place for A Village, how nature shaped the city of Melbourne, Gary Presland, Museum Victoria Publishing 2009.

Melbourne Streetlife, AJ May, Australian Scholarly Publishing, 1998

Picturing Australia, A History of Photography, Anne-Maree Willis, Angus And Robertson, London 1988


Picture Victoria

State Library Picture Collection online to date photographs-part-2
Above is called in Praise of Shadows, actually about the demise of the electric lightglobe. A lovely set of images from an exhibition at the V and A, and an article about among other things the history of the lightglobe and the aesthetic quality of light.


Coburg Historical Society Photograph Collection

I got out all the photographs I was using for Moments in the Sun, to look at closely and check I was reading the photographs correctly – which blotches were ripples in the water and which blotches were shadows of boys?


Photographer Unknown, Monash University of Art, 2009

The Melbourne Story, Melbourne Museum, 2008

Countless local history exhibitions!