In Sydney’s past lives, trams trundled the streets (until the network was dismantled in 1961, it was one of the most extensive in the Commonwealth, second only to London), interstate train tickets were booked at a counter in Central Station and the CBD wasn’t dominated by skyscrapers. Nathan Mete documents these bygone eras on his Instagram account, Retro Sydney, which has been adapted into a photography book Retro Sydney 1950–2000, out today.
Mete started the account in 2020 with a photo of activist, heiress and journalist Juanita Neilsen, who disappeared and was presumed murdered in 1975 after she opposed a development on Victoria Street in Kings Cross. Since then, the account has amassed more than 100,000 followers – some of whom remember the beaches, vehicles, roads and shopping centres as they were “back then”, and some who are coming to old Sydney with fresh eyes.
“I’ve always had an interest in the post-war period of Sydney – mainly through the stories of when my grandparents migrated here from Italy and how different life was, then how my parents grew up through the ’70s and ’80s on the Northern Beaches. Plus, I love the photography,” Mete tells Broadsheet. “It’s amazing seeing in these photographs how some places look so familiar, [yet] how different they are today – the cars, the buildings, the signage, the fashions.”
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Mete finds most of his photos through government channels such as the State Library of NSW, council archives (he says the City of Sydney is particularly passionate about its photographic history) and the National Archives of Australia. Other images come from old slides and photographs people send him directly, while he researches his detailed captions in old newspaper articles or via Google.
Through running the page, Mete has enjoyed an in-depth glimpse into Sydney’s recent history – but he says it’s hard to pick a favourite era.
“Each decade in the book has a collective appeal – there are so many variables that do it for me, like the fashions, the architecture, the events happening at a particular time. Although I’d have to say, the ’70s and ’80s are super cool – I think that’s [due to] the stories of when my parents grew up giving them context, and how much the city changed during that particular period.”
This is an edited image extract from Retro Sydney 1950-2000 by Nathan Mete (Scribe $55). Out on October 3.