Sunday, December 27, 2015

Then and now: Wolfgang Sievers' Collins Street

Happy holidaze, everyone! I hope your festive season has been fab so far. Santa was kind enough to bring me Angus O’Callaghan’s long-awaited opus, Melbourne, which is almost blinding in its beauty—but also quite poignant in its portrayal of an era long-since past. Let’s face it: Melbourne may still be the best city in Australia, but it ain’t what it used to be, and O’Callaghan’s book is a stunning reminder of that.

But it’s not just O’Callaghan’s photos that have this effect on me. The photography of Wolfgang Sievers—subject of today’s post—can evoke a similar sense of longing for times gone by. I wonder if there’s a psychological term to describe nostalgia for a decade you never experienced in the first place? I know I’m not the only one afflicted by the condition.

But moving right along to Mr Sievers: and specifically, his photos of Collins Street, one of the CBD's main thoroughfares which was, as we will see, extremely photogenic in its 1960s heyday.

Collins Street. Photo by Wolfgang Sievers, courtesy National Libray of Australia; vn-3334045-v

An eye for style

As mentioned elsewhere in this blog, Wolfgang Sievers was a German-born photographer who immigrated to Australia and settled in Melbourne in 1938, setting up a studio in South Yarra. After WWII broke out, he volunteered for the Australian Army – just like his countryman Henry Talbot – and served between 1942 and 1946. (Actually, the Gestapo had their sights set on him for aerial photography duties with the Luftwaffe just before he fled Europe!). 

Once back in civilian society, Sievers moved his base of operations to Grosvenor Chambers, a suite of artists’ studios at the Parliament end of Collins Street that had once housed Aussie Impressionists Charles Condor, Arthur Streeton and Tom Roberts, among other luminaries. And when he wasn’t off taking eerily epic architectural photos and pics of menacing-looking industrial machinery, Sievers was outside snapping the local streetlife. 

Photo by Wolfgang Sievers, 1964; courtesy National Library of Australia; WS 2523-Na

I love the dappled shade on the footpath, and the shop signage: particularly the neon ‘Spectacle Makers’ sign. I mean, do optometrists even call glasses ‘spectacles’ these days? And judging by the trio of women strolling together in the foreground, and the lady going into a shop behind them, white was obviously a là mode.

Here's another one taken from a similar vantage point: 

Photo by Wolfgang Sievers, 1964, courtesy National Library of Australia, vn-3353435-v
Note the partially obscured sign for ‘La Caprice’. From the little I’ve been able to uncover, La Caprice was a café, the interior of which Sievers actually photographed in 1956. Now, I know it falls outside this blog's chronological remit, but get a load of this for some schmick mid-century style: 
La Caprice. Photo by Wolfgang Sievers, 1956; copyright holder unknown. I bet they made a mean espresso.

....And here’s how that particular stretch of Collins Street looks now: spot the difference! 
No caption required.

Admittedly, my amateur photographics don’t exactly enhance the aesthetics, but honestly, can anyone tell me what the hell’s happened to women’s fashion in the last 51 years? Not to mention trends in street umbrellas. 

Meanwhile, a spot of research prompted by the following photo of the Oriental Hotel yielded some interesting history. It turns out that this hotel, once located at 17 Collins Street, was quite the local legend once upon a time....
Photo by Wolfgang Sievers, copyright holder unknown
Not only did the Oriental establish Melbourne’s first side-walk café in 1958, it was also responsible for the city's first American-style cocktail bar (whatever that means), its first steak restaurant and its first discotheque. A favourite with the sophisticated set, the Oriental’s consciously Continental style was the impetus for the top end of Collins Street becoming known as the ‘Paris end’, a label which, as we all know, endures even now.

Mind you, not all those who frequented its public spaces were frocked-up in their Friday-night finest. A group of journalists from the Herald, who liked to call themselves the ‘Morning Tea Club’, used to meet at Oriental bar at 11am every day for their morning, ahem, heart-starter. I can only imagine how lively those sessions got...

Sadly, like the historic Southern Cross hotel, the Oriental was sacrificed in the name of ‘progress’, being demolished in 1971 to make way for Collins Place. These days, you’d never even guess it’d been there….

But we don't want to end on a sad note, right? 

So here's one final, fond farewell to Collins Street as seen through Sievers' keen eyes...
Photo by Wolfgang Sievers, courtesy National Library of Australia, vn-3353472-v

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