At Mitchell Library this week, I’ve come across a collection of photographs from the late 1920s and 1930s in inner-Sydney and Newtown. The photos were taken by Anthony Swinburne, a man with an evident hankering for the raw life of inner-urban yards and industrial kerbsides, and for the life of the stage.
The people Swinburne depicts are all cafe staff and vaudeville actors, hauled before the lens on a break and snapped in a slapdash moment before rushing back to work. The theatrical world he photographs is a far cry from the glitzy images of Gaiety Theatres, Ziegfeld girls and Keith vaudeville stars that you find in the promo-shots and posters and gushing memoirs of the 1920s. They show women in ill-fitting bloomers and bathing caps standing against a brick wall with the gritty asphalt and warehouses of Newtown visible to one side. Or men in rumpled shirts against a fence with broken palings, and some girl in a spangly leotard, arms upraised in a revue-dancer’s pose, the ragged grass of a back-lot behind her.
Swinburne’s pictures have been taken on some kind of little Kodak or Box Brownie camera. They’re small, badly reproduced, often blurred or half-obscured by shadow. I wish it wasn’t so expensive to order them from the library: I want their smudged impressionistic pathos to mull over, having something of their graininess and down-at-heelness in mind as I read of accounts of ‘sparkling’ Tivoli actors and gleaming-legged revue girls.
Anthony Swinburne, photographs. Mitchell Library, Sydney, Pic. Acc. 4836