A retro hair salon in Reservoir. A milk bar shopkeeper in Abbotsford. A Carlton North kitchen strewn with bits and bobs. A leather worker in Brunswick East. An ice-cream truck covered in Disney-themed paintings parked on a Pascoe Vale street.
These are some of the subjects found in documentary photographer Warren Kirk’s latest book, Northside, which explores the changing face of Melbourne’s northern suburbs over more than a decade.
“Suburbia ticks all the boxes for me in terms of my interests photographically. The built environment, or the ‘social landscape’ as it’s termed, is fascinating for a documentary photographer,” he tells Broadsheet. “I see stories and layers of history in those places, and quite often the so-called humdrum is actually quite extraordinary – stranger than fiction, as the saying goes.”
Kirk lives in Melbourne’s west, the subject of his first photography book, Westography, but his body of work also includes ventures out north. This book is a collection of those images, spanning 12 years’ worth of moments captured in time.
The images are nostalgic in a way, harkening back to a time before gentrification – when mom-and-pop shops proliferated instead of hip cafes and bars, and when the area was home to migrant communities rather than city workers and students.
“The social fabric is changing so rapidly in terms of living and work arrangements that I’m driven to document what’s left of the ‘old world’; I find it far more visually appealing than what’s taking its place,” Kirk says. “I use this [American author John] Steinbeck quote a fair bit: ‘I wonder why progress looks so much like destruction’.”
In a way, the book isn’t just a tribute to the past – it’s also a reminder to keep looking for snippets of the past in the present. None of the images feel dated – they could been taken 10 years ago or just yesterday. Yes, the north has changed, but so much of what it once was is still there, hiding in plain sight. Northside is a call to keep the beauty of it alive.
“Suburbia is, to me, far more than domesticity. It’s also about the shops and factories that occupy back streets. Many, such as the shoe repairer, tailor, watch repairs, et cetera are a dying breed, along with small-scale industry that was so prolific in the inner suburbs,” Kirk says.
“To get the chance to document them and domestic living spaces in the hope of making some appealing images is now my major preoccupation. Lucky me.”
Northside: A Time and Place by Warren Kirk is available now through Scribe Publications for $35.