Sydney street photography exhibit celebrates everyday style icons
Dorothy Moore was just 16 when she donned her first and only tailor-made suit in 1936 and got the train into the city for her first job as a secretary at Morgan’s Publication House.
“I went to the tailor in Fairfield where I lived and he made that, tailored that, for me,” she remembers.
“I wore that nearly every day and I paid it off. We used to struggle to get through, but we did.”
Dorothy and her colleague Iris were snapped in Sydney’s Pitt Street on their lunch break that year by one of the city’s many street photographers.
The image captures the young girls mid-stride, smile on their faces as they navigate the hustle and bustle of the lunchtime rush.
“Every day we used to dress up and sometimes we wore hats to work,” Mrs Moore, nee Robinson, said.
“You could wear gloves sometimes when you really wanted to be all dressed up.”
Street photography was a craft that emerged in depression-era Australia as jobless men picked up a camera and took pictures of unsuspecting pedestrians.
Now a new exhibition at Sydney Living Museum has collected hundreds of some of the millions of photos of regular Australians taken on city streets over nearly three decades.
It has captured a living history of Australian fashion including little girls in Mary Jane shoes, boys in their flat caps, servicemen in their slouch hats and ladies in their finest lacey millinery and gloves.
For men, wide collars, double-breasted jackets and porkpie hats dominated the street subjects.
Little girls were often spotted in gingham dresses and frilly bonnets on Sydney footpaths.
Ladies made the most of wartime and depression-era frugality, but still took to the streets in tailored floral frocks, strappy shoes and the ubiquitous set of pearls.
Dorothy Moore, now 98, with a photograph of her and a friend captured in 1936. (ABC News: Alison Branley)
Exhibition curator Anna Cossu said the photos also captured some of the social customs of the time.
“The way men and women and people held each other’s arms,” she observed.
“The way handbags were held on the crook of the arm. The fashion in shoes is fantastic as well.”
Street photography not without controversy
Sydney Living Museum put the call out for photos earlier this year and received such an overwhelming response they had to tell people to stop sending pictures.
It is estimated in 1935 alone there were more than 10,000 street photos being bought each week in New South Wales.
Just one company sold 2 million photos between 1933 and 1936.
An image in the Sydney Living Museum’s exhibition shows a street photographer at work on a Sydney street. (Supplied: Sydney Living Museum)
Today there are millions of images estimated to be in family photo albums around the country from photographers in most capital cities.
“It’s an extraordinary archive of our cities and our people across three decades,” Ms Cossu said.
The street photography trade was not without its controversies, with many photographers competing for business across the city and targeting people like young couples, children and servicemen.
“They would just basically jump out in front of you, take a photo, quickly hand you a card, and then they would disappear because they’d set their sights on the next person,” Ms Cossu said.
“There was a lot of backlash from the public about them being pests because you could actually be photographed multiple times in one day.”
Members of the public would then take the card to a nearby kiosk and have the image developed and printed within two days for the price of a beer.
However, on the odd occasion, the photographers were known to snap men on the street with women other than their wives.
Their exploits could easily be discovered by those inspecting the proof sheets looking for their own image.
“The city council really tried to stamp them out because they thought it promoted other people setting up businesses on the street. They thought the street cards littered the street,” Ms Cossu said.
Dorothy Pidding and Thomas Gosling, 1938, at Circular Quay and Molly Firth (pictured right) with work friends on Elizabeth Street in 1936. (Supplied: Sydney Living Museum)
Brothers in arms
Brothers Frank and Pat Doughty were aged just five and three when they were snapped by a street photographer outside Customs House in Sydney’s Circular Quay during World War II.
The pair, now 81 and 79, have happily recreated the family moment eight decades later, right down to the shorts and flat caps.
In the photo, Frank, the elder of the two, was grabbing three-year-old Pat’s hand so he would not run across the street.
The pair had come to the city with their mother and aunty and were dressed in their finest to catch the Manly ferry.
The original black and white street shot of Frank and Pat Doughty from 1943 beside a modern-day recreation, with the brothers now aged 81 and 79 respectively.
(Supplied: Sydney Living Museum)
While the duo were photographed a number of times over the years, that particular picture had a special place in their family history.
“On the back of it was my mother’s handwriting where she sent that photograph to Dad while he was away in the war and said ‘here are your two little boys Frankie and Pat’,” Frank recalled.
Their father was on a minesweeper in the Royal Australian Navy and had been travelling up the coast as far as New Guinea.
He was so foreign to the family that when he returned on leave young Pat did not recognise him.
“He had a beard and I didn’t think it was him,” Pat recalled.
“I was waiting for him on the corner of the street, I ran all the way home and in the back door, straight in the bedroom and got underneath the bed.”
The boys’ father had been at sea many years when he received the print.
“He kept it and when he passed away, another brother and I were cleaning out his unit and I found some letters from Mum to him and I found that.”
Frank said the photos represented an opportunity for a special family memento that was affordable to people at the time.
“People didn’t have cameras to take family shots or selfies or things like that so they meant a lot to people,” he said.
The exhibition runs until July 21.
Andrea Spano with daughters Carmela and Bertha and Rosalind Ellis 1956, Macquarie Street (pictured left) and another child captured by street photographers. (Supplied: Sydney Living Museum)