Fanatics: Capturing the fading history of Inner Melbourne

Flicking through David Wadelton’s book Small Business, it’s easy to feel you are being drawn back to a previous time in history. An era when it was the norm for stores to have checkerboard lino on the floor, framed photos of the owners behind the counter, and sloping glass display cases showing the goods on offer. Yet the images in Small Business were all taken since 2010, mostly in inner city Melbourne, with a few from the wider Victoria region.

Wadelton’s aim was to capture a style of family-owned retailing that is slowly disappearing with the arrival of fast food chain outlets, shopping malls, and big box stores. In fact, a third of the businesses shown in the book have since closed.

However, Wadelton says that the project wasn’t seeking to stir a ‘yearning nostalgia’ in the viewer:

“It’s more objective than that. Systematically photographing my inner-northern neighbourhood of Northcote had its origins in 2008. I was scanning thousands of my negatives from the 1970s, and consequently became acutely aware of what remained from that time, and what was lost. This coincided with the 2000s inner-city apartment boom, when demolition and demographic change were accelerating.”

The photographs draw the viewer’s eye to multiple small details across the expanse of the scene - an old phone in a barber store, red padded diner stools, or a curving art deco wall separating two parts of an old-style cafe. Wadelton purposefully presents a wide frame of the room in question, so multiple elements can pop out in this way:

“I’m always attracted to a super-abundance of detail - documentary-style photographs loaded and coded with detail. ‘Maximalism’ if you like.”

The book came out in March 2021, so completing the project meant working through the multiple lockdowns that took place over the previous year. Fortunately, Wadelton had already taken many of the photos, but it did mean that much of the editorial process had to take place online:

“In many ways the lockdowns, although tedious, have not hindered my work. Against all odds we were able to get Small Business out in the world despite the obstacles – zoom meetings and all.”

Small Business: A living room in Brunswick from Suburban Baroque // PHOTO: David WadeltonA living room in Brunswick from Suburban Baroque // PHOTO: David Wadelton

In some ways, Small Business can be seen as a companion piece to Wadelton’s previous book, Suburban Baroque (2019). In that instance, he took an interest in the interior stylings of people’s homes rather than stores. Nonetheless there was an aspect of maximalism in the details of each shot. The book focused on the houses of mid-century migrants, who had come to Australia to escape their working-class origins and so displayed their newly found prosperity by decorating their houses with faux-chandeliers, landscape paintings, or outrageously patterned wallpapers and carpets.

These backdrops provide a stark contrast to the minimalist interiors of modern homes, where walls are often a single colour and the floors left as polished wood (or covered in carpets that are similarly monochromatic). Once again, the book does a wonderful job of marking a creeping change in the lives of Australians which usually goes unremarked upon.

Wadelton’s fanatical passion for capturing the changing face of Melbourne actually goes back to before he published his two books. In 2008, he started the Facebookpage Northcote Hysterical Society where he shares images of the area. Interest in the page has now gone far beyond his local neighbourhood and the group is rapidly approaching 6,000 members.

The images he posts provide a personal and sympathetic view of Northcote as a microcosm of Melbourne as a whole. Many of them capture aspects of the landscape which are fading from view - the remains of old signage, a warehouse from last century that is lined up for demolition, or a vacant lot where a set of shops has been demolished so apartments can be built.

A post from Northcote Hysterical Society // PHOTO: David WadeltonA post from Northcote Hysterical Society labelled: “Thought provoking installation at the inaugural Northcote Central Biennale of Modern Art.” // PHOTO: David Wadelton

However, Wadelton also uses his posts on the Northcote Hysterical Society page as a chance to poke fun at other less-than-ideal aspects of the neighbourhood. One picture shows a trash-strewn section of concrete-enclosed grass, which is tagged as the ‘Northcote Botanical Gardens.’ In another, Wadelton has photographed a local carpark where the uneven surface causes cars to regularly scrape their underside against the tarmac - “the Plaza's notorious dip." He sees this as a nice contrast to his printed work:

“There’s a more casual and humorous approach to the Northcote Hysterical Society – as befits the context. Many of the concerns there overlap with my broader work which deals with the everyday; the quotidian.”

Wadelton’s passion for documenting the world around him shows no signs of slowing, though he is keeping his current plans under wraps for the time being:

“I always have numerous projects on the go at any time, but I don’t really want to give anything away. Besides, I might change my mind tomorrow!”


MAIN IMAGE: Arthur Koniaris Barber, Fitzroy from Small Business // PHOTO: David Wadelton

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