Photography Warren Kirk

how the west was lost: pictures from a vanishing suburbia

Warren Kirk is preserving Melbourne’s Western suburbs through photos.

by Wendy Syfret
11 July 2016, 3:10am

Photography Warren Kirk

In recent years, Melbourne's Western suburbs have undergone a massive cultural, physical and social transformation. Main streets in Footscray, Seddon and Yarraville are now home to specialist bars and $5 coffees, as residents and observers debate whether the change is positive or catastrophic. But amid the familiar lines around gentrification and urban renewal are locals witnessing their world fade from view.

Photographer Warren Kirk has spent years compiling images of these people's lives and homes, and he's now published a selection in his new book Westography: Images of a Vanishing Suburbia. His shots of people and interiors show pockets of stillness in a community marked by upheaval. Drenched in colour and sugar-free nostalgia, they're his personal attempt to show how lovely the mundane can be.

A lot of times when people create work around gentrification or shifting communities, the focus is on what has changed. But looking at Westography, it seems you're more interested in what's remained.
I just love old stuff, I started op shopping in my late teens and collecting things, so photography is another avenue in exploring that. I love poking around old factories and workshops, seeing things that haven't been used for years, and the old decorations people have in their houses that don't really exist anymore.

I just love time warps I suppose, walking through some sort of entrance way — whether it be a shop or someone's premises — and being in another era. These are little pockets of the past sitting in modernity. 

You didn't grow up in the West, but spent most of your adult life there. When you go into people's homes and workplaces do you feel like a member of the community archiving your own world, or an outsider serving as documentarian?
It's a little like I'm on the outside observing; it was always like that, even before I took up photography. I'm not the most social animal, I've always looked and observed. But I do also feel like a part of community, so it's a bit of both. The camera gives me an excuse to get into places I wouldn't normally have any reason to go to, I've been exposed to a very diverse range of communities and lifestyles.

This whole conversation of the changing West is really about gentrification and development: the argument over whether a community is being improved or erased. As someone who lives there, and also spends a lot of time inside different lives, what's your take on that?
Being a glass-half-empty sort of bloke, I see it as more of a negative thing — as something being lost. But obviously, things are being added as well. Take Seddon for instance: even though it can be interpreted as quite hipster with twenty-five different places to have coffee, at least it brings vibrancy to the area. But at the same time I sometimes grit my teeth because I can't drive down Victoria Street and find a parking spot anymore, classic first world problems.

What do you see the impact of that change being?
I think what would have attracted people to this area in the past won't be here in twenty years time. All the older houses will be knocked over as the older residents unfortunately die. The development that's taking those places is, as far as I am concerned, shoddy, inappropriate and ugly.

That's my major sadness along with all the high-rises that are going on. I understand we need denser housing, but we seem to build the most appalling, unimaginative, lowest common denominator, cheap and nasty architecture. All in all, I'm not singing praises for the change.

When we talk about preserving or mourning a changing area, there is a lot of focus on what has been lost on a larger cultural scale. But it's interesting to look at it on a micro-level, at the individual people whose homes and personal memories are being erased.
I'm interested in really little, modest, small-age history where middle-people's lives are quite heroic in a way. When you talk to people, their stories are interesting and you never would have thought from looking at them or walking past their house that all those things resided there. I guess what I'm about is being a storyteller through my photographs; I just think it's important that those sorts of things aren't lost out of living memory. A lot of stuff just goes in the skip and it's forgotten, those things are just lost forever and that is sad.

I'm attempting to capture what is left of the past that lives in the present. The challenge for me was to find beauty in the most mundane and domestic or industrial situation, and turn it into something people can look at and see beauty in which they wouldn't normally haven noticed or expected.

Westography: Images of a Vanishing Suburbia is out now through Echo Publishing.


Text Wendy Syfret
Photography Warren Kirk