Children and Urban Space

‘Children and Urban Space’, Robert Rooney Seminar, Centre for Contemporary Photography, 24 April, 2013

Powerpoint slides:


 In response to Robert Rooney’s extraordinary photographs I want to draw two very thin threads through the history of Australian photography and film.  I’m going to be looking at two separate filaments which have linked together the way children have been used to define or re-define urban space in Australia. The first is the figure of the street urchin, who has been seen as a combination of both the picturesque and the pathogenic. The second occurs in three films, Kid Stakes, 1927, BMX Bandits, 1983 and Deck Dogz, 2005, in which children or adolescents pursue trajectories at a tangent to the normative social geographies of Sydney.

Street Urchins and the Official Gaze

Children have been crucial motifs in the official photographs of urban space. They appear regularly in the photographs documenting the cleansing of The Rocks area following the outbreak of the Bubonic Plague in January 1900.

When these photographs were rediscovered in the 1970s the historian Max Kelly recognized that the photographer had also captured a new relationship between citizen and camera, in which the children had also become enmeshed.  He said:

Here people are as they were. There is no artifice. Some are caught unawares, some are apprehensive. Others are just as interested in the photographer as he is in them. Most have only rarely, if ever, had their photographs taken.

The presence of the small, kinetic children, often caught in fleeting movement or play, further activates the deep, wide-angle space of the photographs, while their social status as vulnerable innocents gives the political meaning of the slum clearance an extra symbolic validation.

Children were deployed to a similar effect in the photographs methodically taken over a period of just one week, in 1916, to document all the buildings to be demolished for a widening of Sydney’s William Street. In his 1982 book Faces of the Street, Max Kelly entered this systematic space and enlarged sections from the evidentiary photos, performing a kind of retro street photography within the archive. Once excavated from the scene the child becomes a kind of readymade punctum in the overall scenarios of the official photographs.

This can also be seen in the Melbourne Housing Commission photographs of F. O. Barnett from the 1930s, where the presence of children overlays the spatial structuring of the labyrinthine, enclosed, segregated slum with a temporal dimension of social poverty. Here, children are social pathogens: will they stay poor like their parents, or will they erupt from the slums and threaten the rest of Melbourne?

However, the stern boot-steps of official photographers have always been shadowed by the soft pad of art photographers.

For instance in 1910 Harold Cazneaux wrote an article called In and about the City with a Hand Camera, a record of his own engagement with the streets which, he said, ‘have all the humour and pathos of life’. For Cazneaux he streets contained artistic lighting effects and picturesque subject matter waiting to be discovered by the intrepid Pictorialist. In particular they contained children who could be photographed in such a way as to hark back to the figure of the urchin when, for the nineteenth century viewer, there was an aesthetic and erotic frisson to be had in seeing innocence potentially threatened. But Cazneaux also admitted that the streets were resistant to his gaze. Without any official authority to back him up, a mute stand-off could quickly become outright hostility and demolish the Pictorialist’s personal old world fantasy. As he warned:

A trip down to the Rocks Area and Argyle Cut will convince any worker with Pictorial imagination of what is to be had, but photography is difficult in this neighborhood. To be successful the worker should have had some experience, as any nervousness of manner and lack of tact whilst working here would only end up by being ridiculed. However go by all means and get broken in. Tact and expert manipulation of one’s camera is necessary if you wish to deal successfully with side street work in this locality. Still, the chances are that you may not like to return again.

However Cazneaux did return again and again to the slums. In the late 1940s and 50s — because of a combination of the post war housing shortage, the rise of the Communist Party and Left politics in Australian art, and the ascendancy of the Documentary genre in photography —  ‘slum portraits’ had a popular resurgence.

In 1948 Cazneaux turned the wee little pictorial gems which he had made back in the 1900s, into brand new bromide enlargements.. He also wrote a print criticism column for Contemporary Photography magazine to which aspiring photographer’s sent prints for critique. One of these was David Moore, an ambitious photographer working at Max Dupain’s studio who was assembling a portfolio to take to London to try to break into the picture magazine market. Moore had identified Sydney’s slums as a prime spot to get photographs that could be of interest to overseas picture editors. Like Cazneaux before him he travelled from his comfortable North Shore home to enter the slum in search of urchins. He titled one of his photographs ‘Little Charlie’, perhaps in reference to Charlie Chaplin’s character of The Tramp, and sent it in to Cazneaux, who was sympathetic to the young photographer’s editorial intentions.

Has the photographer been concerned with the sunlight and texture shown on the figure, post and old brick wall, or the slum-like surrounding the boy is growing up in … The photographer has supplied the clue to the motif. His title ‘Little Charlie’ is a definite statement. We can use our imagination and extract a reason. ‘Little Charlie’ seemingly looks forward to the future — and what of his future? Who knows? The fact that the print can thus arouse our interest and sympathy places it on a higher plane of pictorial expression. I make no comment as to how this photograph could be improved.  At the moment we are more concerned with its message.

During this period many other photographers, such as Geoffrey Powell, Henry Talbot, Jeff Carter and Mark Strizic, also shot picturesque documentary urchins around the slums of Sydney. Many of these photographs — both the official ones and the artistic ones — have a very similar composition. They place the figures of the children precariously along the deep vertiginous angles of alleyways and walls, leading backwards and forwards through space. This visually amplifies the metaphorically precarious temporal status of the slum child, moving simultaneously backwards and forwards through the processes of social development and historical progress, as well as potentially across the barrier between the slum and the rest of the city. The ‘deep space’ shot dominates, but sometimes the ‘line-up against the wall ‘shot, which harks back to the graph–like display of poverty in Lewis Hine or Walker Evans, also occurs

It is probably too much of a stretch to tie this thread through to Carol Jerrems’ intensely personal engagement with the young skinheads she taught around Heidelberg in 1975. There are too many differences. She was not an outsider like the other photographers, rather she knew her subjects personally and she found them erotically compelling as individuals, rather than types. In filming the uncompleted film School’s Out she was a precarious guest in the communally enclosed spaces they had created for themselves on the banks of the Yarra. Looking at these extraordinary sequences now, not only does the intense eroticisation of the encounter come through, but also the sense that at any moment the rules that had been set to allow the encounter to happen in the first place, may suddenly be broken.

However Jerrems’ work does allow me to segue to the three films I want to finish with, which are also concerned with getting inside the spaces children create for themselves. Although basically generic kids movies, each film sets up a dominant panoramic view of the city, beneath which, or across which, a group of children move, following their own needs and desires, and evading the higher, clumsier and more inflexible demarcations of hapless adults.

Ludic Trajectories


Kid Stakes

The popular children’s film Kid Stakes, made in 1927, contains an astonishing sequence that perfectly, elegantly and poetically, captures the spatial politics of Sydney in the 1920s. Based on a comic strip, the film centres on the slum kids of Woolloomooloo who play cricket and live their lives freely in front of the wharves and ships of Woolloomooloo Bay. Above them lies Potts Point, full of its posh mansions and restrictive mores. Suddenly, out of the rows of grand houses at the bottom of Victoria Street, emerges an upper class boy who yearns for the freedoms of the Woolloomooloo kids. Through the bars of his suburban prison he performs a panoramic sweep of the city across the bay. But this panorama is not a projection into the future, instead he is assaying a potential personal itinerary. He sees the kids playing, and the camera irises in. The Woolloomooloo steps dwarf him as he descends down them like a latter-day Dante, but the steps are leading him towards the salvation of the slums. Initially the slum kids taunt him, but when he proves he can fight he joins their gang and, his velvet clothes now torn, he becomes free. He is able to lead the kids back up the steps, past a sleeping policeman on guard between the two elevations, the two classes, of Sydney, and into the wilds of Potts Point for further adventures.

BMX Bandits

In BMX Bandits Nicole Kidman and her two friends are being chased by two bumbling baddies. The film is a ‘location film’ shot in Manly, but since it is trying to cash in on the BMX craze of the early 80s it is entirely an urban film — unusually for a beach film the kids never set foot on the sand, and never enter the surf. The baddies, who style themselves as American gangsters, drive a big American car and so are compelled to slew back and forth along the switchback roads of Manly’s hills, whilst the BMXers nimbly dart directly up and down the slopes, as well as through shopping centres and building sites. In one extraordinary sequence they transition between urban strata in a dizzying delirium as they slide down the fiberglass spirals of the Manly Waterworks, complete with their bikes.

Deck Dogz

The three nimble skateboarders in 2007’s Deck Dogz are also being chased by two lumbering and hapless baddies. But, rather than the unstructured romp of BMX Bandits, there is an attempt to embed their skateboarding thrills and spills in a Jospeh Cambellesque hero’s journey from the badlands of Sydney’s western suburbs to a beachside skate bowl where the Holy Grail of corporate sponsorship by a world famous skater awaits. But, as in Kid Stakes and BMX Bandits, panoramic horizon lines of the city also feature. These horizon lines are a spatial limit beneath which only children, equipped with either slum-bred insouciance, or BMX Bikes, or skateboards, can travel. In Deck Dogz the skateboarders travel down a stormwater drain, which morphs into the virtual space of a computer game to deposit them magically within the city of Sydney itself.

Martyn Jolly

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