As a fine art photographer, my discovery of an old farmhouse and workshop on the outskirts of Melbourne unearthed a weathered, but remarkably intact time capsule. This almost century old house sits secluded from the main road, yet only a few minutes drive from the encroaching suburban sprawl. All I needed was my curiosity and camera to investigate its mystery.
Abandoned, it appears, almost 60 years ago, the house sits almost exactly as it was left. Old dolls pushers, chairs and rusting bicycles lay piled on its front verandah. Tall grass, cacti and pines ring the house.
Did it hold a treasure-trove of domestic relics, or anything at all?
In my other role as an architectural writer/photographer, I'm used to commissioned projects - glamorous, elegant houses and soaring towers. I have photographed and filmed them for years, yet never covered a derelict farmhouse.
I wanted to document the evidence of another time. Hopefully it contained enough artefacts to help reveal something about those who once lived here.
Many of my documented images are available at: www.hyattgallery.com.au
What intrigued about this property was its originality. Neglect isn't necessarily the enemy of preservation. It hadn’t been made over, tricked up or restored. In a strange way neglect had preserved its authenticity. It certainly hadn’t been occupied, or loved, for a very long time. This was original and real - and in the process of falling down. It won’t stand for much longer. One day soon it will collapse with its history. I wanted to record the spirit of this place before age and gravity finish their work.
It wasn’t until I wondered what might exist within, that the story gathered strength. Apparently it had been a cook’s house that serviced the shearers and farmhands who lived in adjacent sheds on a once sprawling sheep station. It became clear that the house had to be photographed and documented largely as found. And in context. That is such a crucial part of its story.
After peering through the spider-webbed windows and frayed blinds I decided to carefully enter the gloom. Joseph Conrad discovered a far darker heart in the Congo than this, but without a flashlight I was blind.
And so I entered the house and wondered what lay ahead. I met an almost charcoal darkness. Photographers love light. It’s why so many compensate and then compensate some more. Before long rooms are clinically illuminated. The Russian born cinema-photographer Yuri Sokol advised: ‘Best to remove the first light before adding a second’. It’s a golden lighting rule for photographers and film-makers: Subtraction before addition.
I wanted to work within the interior’s gloomy confines and avoid the substitution of artificial lights. In short, I wanted the house to remain and feel authentic.
With the shaft of daylight from the open doorway it was obvious the place had had few, if any visitors during the past half-century or so.
In this age of the new, sparkling and forever young, I wanted to learn something of its past by seeing what it might yield for my camera. An empty shell would tell me one thing, but would I find more? Collapsing walls and rusting roof hardly promised much, but best not to anticipate too much. I knew of the stories of abandoned Parisian apartments holding remarkable treasure.
Well, I reminded myself, keep dreaming. I didn’t expect to find the work of any old masters here. But I wondered.....
What survived the ravages of time? Was it even worth inspection? After a working lifetime of photographing architecture, I anticipated the pure, rustic simplicity of this house. Built early last century, the bungalow clearly came without any styling conceits. When the world of Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby was in full swing this house must have been filled with its very own extraordinary people. They would have lived a parallel life minus the champagne and diamonds, yet still rich in language, music, love and, perhaps, betrayal.
Curiosity took me inside for the same reasons that Indiana Jones was drawn into the cave of human skulls, killer arrows and oversized rolling boulder. Fantasizing about high adventure was one thing, but I had a sense this house might still hold some sort of secret. I wanted to learn more about an era that had been linked to a working farm and its neighbouring historic farmhouses. I hoped to find a few clues and fingerprints I could photograph.
My wife Jenny and eldest daughter Ella arrived. I had called them earlier on the hunch of finding something of interest. It might have been in a state of partial collapse and yes its sagging, buckled floors were disorienting in the dark, but it drew us inexorably in.
Even with torchlight, or perhaps because of it, they found the experience unnerving. They recalled haunting childhood tales and Gothic horror films that filled them with foreboding.
We all shared similar thoughts: Who lived here? Why was it abandoned? Would a haunted image present itself? The pervasive influence of Hollywood seemed to prepare us for some out-of-body experience.
We stepped carefully over piles of old newspapers and around books and boxes that littered the floor. To my right a crate of deer antlers reached out like grasping skeletal fingers. Next to these a pre-World War Two radiogram at an unlikely angle sat dust-coated.
Would some of the old floorboards finally collapse beneath us? We walked in single file behind the light’s tight, silver, dust-filled beam. We spoke of what the great Egyptologist Howard Carter must have experienced upon entering Tutankhamun’s Tomb. Well that was a touch overblown, but there was no doubting we were all ready for the unexpected.
Even in daylight, the interiors remained locked in funereal darkness. Here and there daylight leaked under a door, or through the veil of decaying blinds. With our eyes widening we could see just enough; a doll's limb protruding from underneath a chair, in another room a frayed Victorian-era rocking horse observing our every move.
Frail light gradually revealed the storehouse of memorabilia. Yes, it was creepy, as I was reminded, but in a strange way, we knew we were guests and that we should behave accordingly. There was a sense of a past that needed respect. Our whispers came from a reverence, or at least consideration, of where others had lived.
But other temptations awaited my photographic eye. Old furniture, much of it missing legs, or with torn upholstery releasing ripped innards and sat just as it was left when the last person departed all of those years ago.
The house is dry, unnervingly quiet yet without any musty, damp or odours.
Click. Click. Click. We stand completely still and hold a breath. Click. The tripod and camera sways with the slightest movement, or footstep. Each time-exposure demands absolute care and respect.
Museums, galleries and vintage stores regularly reconstitute the contents of such houses. They transplant the objects and despite such curatorial efforts or sales tricks, profoundly change an object’s meaning. In the process and stripped of their context, exhibits lose much of their authenticity and relationship to the place in which they originally existed.
Its contents are destined to disappear, or be consigned to some vendor’s market stall, or stark gallery. Photography will help vicariously remember the life and times of this house and its occupants.
Perhaps most poignant is the family of dolls and toys. Viewed in isolation these represent no great discovery, yet captured in their original surroundings, they stir our imaginations. It is as if the toys have in some way worn and aged along with the house.
Small treasures, meaningless now, yet loved long ago lay under blankets and velvetine covers. Old metal cars and pull along horses appear to stand by keeping vigil. And boxes or dolls, golliwogs and bears lay piled together like an early rendering from Toy Story. Perhaps they really had been scampering around the house just moments before we arrived and fell down in fear as soon as they heard our approach.
Like seasoned actors those dolls posed unstintingly and without complaint. One or two consistently closed their eyes and no amount of encouragement made them awaken. Perhaps it was their age. Many had limbs, ears, eyes or tufts of fur missing and never once complained. They really were story-book perfect subjects.
My camera blinks red and then relays the recorded image onto the viewfinder. There’s a beautiful shot of Sweetie at the wheel of a rusting old car. And another image of a headless jockey doll with his enigmatic companions fills my viewfinder. They slump or stand defiantly by an odd turntable with a bizarre antler arm.
Antiquity doesn’t have to be thousands, or hundreds of years old to affect us. Vintage is more recent and has its own influence. It remind us of children who became adults who then became our grandparents. That is some of the fascination of these dolls, bears and toys. It increased the sense of intimacy with this place and produced images fragile, yet powerful reminders of a time lost and re-discovered.
There were plenty more finds including such social/cultural pearls as observed in a women’s magazine from the old larder, or food storage room. It featured an advertisement for a now out of production oven with ways in which women could secure their marriage. The heading cooed: “Keep hold of your man.”
Reading by torchlight we discovered more of the secret: “He will remain forever faithful once under the spell of your succulent, perfumed, home-cooked beef.”
Who said 5th Avenue and Ad Men invented the most absurdly sexist advertising?
The house was abandoned in the late 1940s. Despite its continued decay it refuses to surrender to the gravity of old age. The old iron roof has resisted inclement weather for its entire lifetime. And its peeling, stripped weatherboards exhibit remarkable resistance to the elements. Before much longer though its sagging timbers will yield some more and finally collapse like a leg-weary old man, or woman. Or it might be bulldozed to make way for a proposed freeway expansion.
As we move through the house it becomes obvious that the old blinds and shutters have done their work and helped to preserve its contents. In reality the absence of any direct sunlight is our friend.
The house fascinates for plenty of reasons. We rarely get to experience properties in the ‘original’ state any more. Most houses undergo a constant and steady round of renewal, reinvention and plastic surgery. Reality television makes a huge point of this.
And it’s worth remembering that the everyday objects, the dolls and toys that now seem ‘weird’ or ‘creepy’ weren’t at all weird or creepy once. They were precious and belonged to people just like us. We wonder though if, just like in Toy Story, the dolls with the banged up eyes and missing limbs really do want to tell us their story. But in the end our adult eyes and ears might not always see or hear what they have to say.
What we discovered was less and more than what we had hoped. Less in that there were no remarkable personal diaries or astonishing, long-lost works of art. It was simpler, highly personal and no less poignant. Here were objects accumulated from two, three and four generations ago left just as they were left. Newspapers and magazines left strewn about narrowed the end of occupancy to around 1950.
Photography is the art of recognizing the extraordinary amid the everyday. It’s also about preparing for the unexpected. Special images can find you, simply because you have a camera in hand. This was one of those moments.
I’m also reminded, as I prepare my camera set-ups, of the contrast between my hi-tech. equipment and those generations whose possessions exist within my viewfinder. They would have marveled at such technology and disbelieved such a technically preposterous camera could ever exist. Hopefully though they would be pleased that their history didn’t end when their front door finally closed for the last time.