THE EMPTY SEATS OF MELBOURNE
During the COVID-19 pandemic, I have tried shooting imagery throughout the troubling times in Melbourne. I was very limited by my ability to travel far from home and with heavy curfews in place. However, my father, Geoff Putnam, who lives close to Melbourne CBD became my eyes for what was going on. This is his account.
Article written by Geoff Putnam (Email)
“From space, you see the physical world and you don’t see any evidence of people. You see what other visitors might see of the world, but there’s no evidence of humanity”
Seats have been around since homo sapiens struggled to stand on two legs. Seats may be a large piece of rock, a fallen tree trunk or an elaborate piece designed by Chippendale or Featherston. They are objects designed for a single purpose.
The Melbourne CBD during our 2020 coronavirus lockdown was full of empty seats. Nobody was there to eat their lunch, look at their phone, gaze at people, take a call, chat to friends and strangers, sit on a train or lounge inside a theatre. The Melbourne CBD that I experienced during August, September and October 2020 was full of empty seats.
Living at Rushall Park brings many advantages. Located within the 5km coronavirus travel restriction, I took my daily permitted exercise by cycling with my Leica camera into the central business district of Melbourne, to record the darkest days of lockdown. It was on Wednesday the 5th of August that Victoria suddenly recorded 725 new overnight cases of coronavirus and Melbourne was placed into immediate lockdown. It lasted for 112 days and that is where this story begins.
During that period I made around a dozen trips to visually record our city in a state of lockdown. To do this I had to be agile since initially I only had one hour to ride my bike from Fitzroy North to the city, and back. This limit was later extended to two hours which was easier on my legs and gave me more time on location to select my subject. Either way I researched carefully the subjects that I wanted to shoot before setting off, and that proved to be the correct move.
Lockdown for metropolitan Melbourne meant exactly that. All retail shops were closed for business, coffee was available as a takeaway service only and office workers were confined to working from home where possible. Public transport offered a limited service only and Melbourne Airport was closed for incoming and outgoing passenger movement. A night time curfew was initially enforced between 8pm-5am, to be extended later from 9.00pm-5am.
The feeling of isolation and silence in the CBD was overwhelming. A city closed with the near absence of people gave the streets a silent and strange apocalyptic presence, not unlike the closing frames of “On the Beach”, otherwise known as Stanley Kramer’s movie about the end of the world. Through my viewfinder it was the sterile urban landscape as only Jeffery Smart could paint it. Regular police patrols ensured it stayed that way.
I photographed the normally bustling Hosier lane on a wet August day during early lockdown and it reminded me of years past when that lane was a dull and dingy place that few dared to enter. Monochrome was the only way to define this momentary journey back in time.
I spent some time outside Flinders Street Station which is normally crowded with tourists waiting under the clocks for someone important to them. On that day nobody sat under the clocks, in fact nobody walked past until this solitary and legally masked figure walked past and gave me the shot I wanted.
The Royal Arcade is, under normal circumstances a busy thoroughfare for shoppers and children waiting patiently for Gog and Magog to strike on the hour as they have done since 1892. On this day during Melbourne’s lockdown the two seven foot timekeepers went through their routine just for me and I felt humbled.
On a normal day in Melbourne the area on Little Bourke Street which bisects the Emporium, David Jones and Myer is crowded with shoppers. But this was no normal day. What seemed to be an act of defiance this major retail precinct was fully lit up for business that wasn’t there.
It took many years to create a public space on Melbourne that actually worked. Since 2002 Federation Square has been a generous area of contemporary sandstone, steel and glass in an architectural package that still divides opinions. As I stood in that empty arena during lockdown, I was prompted to fit my spare mask to “fearless girl” as a protest to those who refused to wear one.
To me the NGV is one of Melbourne’s treasures. Architect Roy Grounds designed this 1967 masterpiece as a hub for Victoria’s precious art collections and travelling international exhibitions. Given the quality of exhibits, I have never witnessed the National Gallery of Victoria without visitors to tour the galleries, take afternoon tea, or simply to bring children to touch the water wall, or to gaze at Leonard French’s stained glass ceiling, best seen as we know from a horizontal position on the floor. On the day I was there during lockdown it looked majestic, but sadly neglected.
To take our children and grandchildren to the theatre is a rich and memorable experience. The Regent Theatre on Collins during lockdown was a sad sight and made me think about the many actors and support services who were not able to work during this lockdown.
Melbourne’s Queen Victoria Market is normally a place of high energy and strained vocal chords. On my time there during lockdown a lonely figure walked past and gave the empty space the scale I wanted.
I remember long ago when Degraves Street was just another dingy thoroughfare. In recent years this laneway has become one of the city’s best alfresco dining experiences but this photo taken during lockdown makes it look like an after-hours film set.
Victoria Police were a highly visible sight in the CBD during lockdown when cars and people were scarce. They went about their business quietly and efficiently from their rendezvous point on the steps of Parliament House.
Back in Hosier Lane in October I spotted the police checking on the welfare of those city dwellers who survive on the margins.
For around 170 years Chinatown in Melbourne has been one of our city’s high energy trading and dining experiences. The day I took this photo during lockdown it was uneasily eerie, but the colours remained like a discarded artist’s palette
After around three months of lockdown Melbourne was permitted to get a haircut. I shot this barber shop in Rathdowne Street Carlton North on Saturday 25th of October. It was Grand Final Day with Richmond and Geelong ready to battle it out. For the first time in the history of AFL the big event has been moved out of Melbourne to Brisbane in keeping with Melbourne’s current coronavirus safety regulations. Queenslanders were happy with their gain at our loss.
On Wednesday the 28th of October our daily coronavirus cases had dropped to zero for two consecutive days so most retail premises, bars, pubs and cafes were permitted to open for the first time in months, and the great coronavirus Melbourne lockdown was almost over. It was a joyous moment which I felt compelled to capture. The people had returned, the doors were open and the lights were on. The sound of children excited just to be there was the perfect euphony. It was if I had woken up from a nightmare about the inconceivable that never happened. But it had.
The following Sunday I resumed my position in the Bourke Street Mall. After a very long lockdown journey the seats of Melbourne had at last returned to their purpose, and my journey to those dark weeks in 2020 came to an end. In shooting my final photographs for this project on the first Sunday in November, I witnessed people of all cultures, colour and age enjoying once again the city we momentarily left behind on that Wednesday in the first week of August 2020.
The seats of Melbourne are warm again