Home Cameras/Lenses Leica Coronavirus: The empty seats of Melbourne

Coronavirus: The empty seats of Melbourne

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Introduction

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.Chris Putnam

Gear used

• Leica V-Lux Type 114 and Slik Monopod

Content

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 —Buzz Aldrin.

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.

Geoff Putnam, a British expat living in Melbourne, Australia was encouraged to document this (hopefully) once in a lifetime event by his son Chris and his close friend, Mike Amos who run the photography site, www.photobasecamp.com. Mike and Chris have been friends for almost thirty years, meeting in school and continue to remain close friends even since Mike moved to Los Angeles almost ten years ago, working as an Animator for DreamWorks. Chris is a sports event photographer who shoots with Canon gear (Mike tries not to hold that against him!) and Mike is an avid shooter of both digital Leica and film cameras along with his newly acquired Hasselblad 503cw, and is a member of LHSA. Their site is a joint project to document and discuss their gear, travels and shared passion for photography.

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 8 pm-5 am, to be extended later from 9.00 pm-5 am.

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 cords. 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 barbershop in Rathdowne Street Carlton North on Saturday the 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.

PhotoBasecamp.com is a photography site that you will find fascinating. Pay a visit and join Chris and Mike on their adventures

19 COMMENTS

  1. Well done, Geoff.

    I’m in the outer east but journeyed into the city a few times for work and can vouch for the eerie vibe. I wrote a brief piece for Mike on the first Melbourne lockdown , it has certainly been a draining year all round.

    Fingers crossed, we’ve done brilliantly well and have hopefully come out the other side. A month without a recorded positive case of Covid, and hospitals without an active case. For those around the world, lockdowns can and do work, so don’t give up hope.

    Best wishes to all.

    • Thanks for your comments Jason. Yes I agree Victoria has been a role model to get to where we are now from where we were. Other places on this piece of rock who are worse off than us should take a close look at how we did it. Stay safe.

  2. Funny, reading this and seeing emptiness, just read your SMH this AM and article said Melbourne on track to beat out Sydney as largest city. Thank you enjoyed this article.

    • Thanks John, It was always going to happen and when it does Sydney will never forgive us. Quite a contrast to the comment that was said to me by a Sydney colleague after I moved from Melbourne to Sydney for my first job in 1968. It went something like this…..”Melbourne is a nice place, but it’s a bit far out of town”. Back in those days he was right.
      True story.

  3. Thanks Geoff for this very interesting article which has so well illustrated the changes brought by the lockdown. The seat metaphor was very effective. Melbourne looks a very attractive place to live in.

    • Thanks for your comments Kevin. Without the sight and sounds of people a city looses the very reason it was built in the first place. Early in our lock-down as I stood in normally one of the busiest parts of Melbourne, all the empty seats was that “light on” moment for an event which I just had to record. Stay safe where ever you are.

  4. Thank you Geoff for a really interesting article and great images from Covid times. it seems the virus is gone from your part of the world, which is not the case around here.

    • Thanks Jean. Australia had to hit it hard and quick. Here in Victoria it almost got away from us in the second wave but 112 days of lock down and strict rules about the wearing of masks got us out of danger…eventually.

  5. Very crisp, clear, spacious shots from your V-Lux 114. Pity it wasn’t possible to blow them up to full screen size. I have the distant forebear of your Leica – the V-Lux 1, a camera I have always enjoyed using and not (yet!) felt the need to upgrade.

    • Hi John,
      During my film years as a keen amateur I was welded to NIKON and my faithful NIKON F, but I always aspired to Leica as many amateurs do. In my later years I have handed over the task of carrying heavy photo equipment around to our son Chris who does a far better job with photographs than I ever did. I find the V-Lux an excellent travelling companion and I have been extremely happy with the results of this very fine bridge camera.

  6. Congratulations Geoff for capturing the atmosphere and ambience of isolation in all of its unique wonder. Thank you to Chris for encouraging Geoff to do this.

    Best wishes

    Dave

    • Thanks Dave.
      Without Chris it may never have happened as he had only just reconditioned my 1996 MARIN mountain bike which I used to ride in and out of the CBD to take shots……all within the legal time limit for exercise of one hour.

  7. Really well done documenting a surreal time Geoff. From here 1,000 km to the north of you we were only able to look on as Melbourne went into an aggressively strict and severe lockdown. But it has been successful, and averted a disaster. Congratulations to Victoria.

    The V Lux 114 has served you really well. The colour palette and brightness that you have chosen (post processing?) does give your images an added feeling of “Where are the humans?”. And your observation that there is a touch of Jeffrey Smart urban landscapes is perceptive.

    A great Saturday morning read with a cup of coffee. Enjoyed it.

    • Thanks Wayne, and glad you enjoyed reading it. I am very pleased with the V-Lux-114 and some of my shots would never have happened if it wasn’t for the generous telephoto range of the zoom lens. I am particularly impressed with the sharpness at the 400mm equivalent limit, but the monopod certainly helped. I use the pod all the time now as I find it is easier to walk with the camera fixed ready to shoot. Much of the editing was done by our photographer son Chris (Putnam) post to my shooting, but the colour rendition off the camera is also very good.

  8. Thanks so much Mike for posting Geoff’s article and the links to Photo Basecamp. Really appreciate the support and so happy to see the great response. As an avid reader of macfilos, its really exciting to see Geoff’s wonderful photos on this site.

    Thanks again!
    Mike

  9. Thanks for the lovely comments and the posting. We are glad we could share this with you. As mentioned, I was working with my Dad on these and he has captured these times really well. They have been featured in many newspapers as I freelance to Getty Images and many stock agencies.

    I found it frustrating personally to not be able to photography. I had permissions in place from my agency but the process for permits and requiring press cards etc made it a bit too high risk. My frustration was eased with working and guiding my Dad and doing this editing. I feel like I was there thru his eyes…and Leica.

    • Chris……your encouragement, guidance on the choice of shots and editing skills was indispensable to this project. On so many occasions you sent me off to take the shots you wanted to do yourself, but couldn’t as you were outside the legal coronavirus 5km limit. A great exercise in teamwork.

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