There is something very chic about the State Library’s collection of post-war photographs from Melbourne in the 1950s. Exploring the work of eight leading photographers, active during the time, the exhibition As Modern As Tomorrow features a carefully curated selection of architectural, design, fashion and industrial photographs from the library’s archives, shown alongside the commercial publications, advertisements and brochures in which they first appeared. Captured during a time when the camera was a relatively modern device, there is vitality that typifies these images through clean lines, dramatic lighting and sharp focus.

Reflecting the shifting cultural and social fabric of Melbourne during an era of development and prosperity, this was a time where everything and everyone looked styled and immaculate. At least this was the sensibility captured through the lens of photographers like Wolfgang Sievers, Mark Strizic, Helmut Newton, Athol Shmith, Maggie Diaz, Henry Talbot, Norman Ikin and Dacre Stubbs, who each feature in the exhibition.

This creative group – who were mainly emigres from Europe and America – were influenced by modern stylistic devices and techniques from abroad. During this vibrant period for commercial photography, photographers, art directors and designers had opportunities to produce sophisticated advertising and promotional material, documenting Victoria’s flourishing post-war industries. At the same time, fashion photography was boosted by the arrival of international publications such as Vogue.

The subsequent body of photographs include glamorous fashion shoots next to crude distillation units, workmen putting finishing touches to amenities blocks and ads for 3AW’s breakfast morning show. They document the life and work of people in the metropolis and, half a century on, are strikingly iconic images of Melbourne.

Other highlights include images of models doing their make-up, ballet dancers on stage, advertisements for Holeproof, record covers and high society weddings and functions. These photographers were blurring the lines between fine art and commercial practice with pronounced camera angles impeccably suited to capturing functional beauty.

Though a seemingly clear reference to the modernist spirit, the exhibition’s title, As Modern As Tomorrow, seems apt on several levels. Even now, these images seem contemporary, refined and extremely elegant, if not a little comical. They offer us a historical vantage on city life that, while half a century ago, doesn’t seem so far removed from today’s Melbourne, whether propped up at a bar, departing the Savoy Plaza Hotel, painting a house or drinking coffee on Collins Street.

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Together with our partner the State Library of Victoria, we’re running a photography competition inspired by the As Modern As Tomorrow exhibition. We want you to recreate these photographs with your own contemporary interpretation. Take inspiration from these remarkable depictions and recast the highly styled aesthetic of postwar Melbourne in a present-day setting. For more details click here.

As Modern As Tomorrow shows at the State Library until February 5, 2012.

Broadsheet is a media partner of As Modern As Tomorrow.