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Australia in the 80s was Downbeat and Color-Drenched

Michael Williams' 'Chromophobia' series depicts a Melbourne where tourists didn't choke city laneways and suburban outskirts were abandoned no-mans lands.



Pickles St, Port Melbourne, 1987

A couple of weeks ago Peter Milne showed us his memories of Melbourne in the 70s. A decade later, it a very different city. Frankston-born photographer Michael Williams shot most of his Chromophobia series in the 80s, when tourists didn't choke city laneways and suburban outskirts were virtually forgotten about.

With color as a connecting element, Michael's photos of red-walled Prahran cafés and twilight skies over St Kilda show there was something transfixing about the city in this period. Ahead of his show at Melbourne's Colour Factory, we chatted to him about assisting Rennie Ellis and why it's worth spending time in the outer suburbs.

VICE: I read you got started assisting Rennie Ellis?
Michael Williams: Yeah after I finished college I worked as his photographic assistant for a while. His studio was on Greville Street in Prahran. At the time I was obsessed with this film called Kodachrome, which gave out these fantastic saturated prints. But Rennie's darkroom had no ventilation and was just toxic.

Speaking of Kodachrome, tell me about your relationship with color.
Being fixated with color changes how I even just go out for a walk. Believe me, when a photographer has a camera they are awful company. They can hardly talk —they're too distracted. My partner never used to go walking with me. Chromophobia is an ironic twist on that color obsession. When I fill an image with color, it becomes difficult to know where you are. It creates these surreal images. They are timeless in a way, you don't know what year or place it is.

Melbourne Show, 1987

What was Melbourne like in the 80s?
Younger people probably don't remember, but in the 80s Melbourne had this real downbeat feel. Artists could still rent a cheap studio in the city. Streets had all these old factories and warehouses on them, much like the Nicholas Building on Swanson Street—which really is the last remaining bastion of those sorts of spaces.

Do any of your shots capture parts of Melbourne that don't exist anymore?
Well, the shot of the circus van is in Melbourne Park in 1985. It's right where Rod Laver Arena is today, back when it all used to be just park and trees. In the 80s these daggy circuses and carnivals used to roll in and just set up all the time. This was Circus Oz, so it's just a local one. This was a time before 9/11 too, so there wasn't much security awareness. I could just walk in and set up equipment. I just loved this great big truck. The word CIRCUS is just enormous, like ten feet high—I could see it from the road.



Melbourne Park, 1985

That's one of your less unsettling images. What did you aim to capture in those?
Whenever I travel I try to seek out the peripheries of wherever I am. In Melbourne, this meant going right out into the outer suburbs of Laverton or Altona. There was this strange mix of incongruous houses, old industrial sites, and these billboards advertising sunglasses or suntan lotion in the middle of nowhere. The whole space had elements so out of sync with each other, it was quite cinematic.

Is that where you took that horse shot?
That's out in Laverton, next to this weird North American taxidermy clinic. The horse was an agistment, meaning someone had paid a farmer to leave him wandering around there on this abandoned property. It was quite unusual really. I don't think it really happens anymore these days.



Laverton, southwest of Melbourne, 1985

What do you like about the city's fringes?
It's what occurs out there, out there in that real no-man's land. Like in the picture of Station Pier, it used to be real desolate. There were all these old, gigantic pot plants, so I got down and experimented with my flash, trying to really accentuate that unsettling atmosphere. It felt like a different world, when you travel out just beyond the everyday environment.



Station Pier, Port Melbourne, 1984

Are any images in Chromophobia taken outside of Melbourne?
Some. There's one from 1987 in Lefkas, Greece—that one of the old man in his underpants. He was the caretaker in some little council depot, he was guarding that strange statue next to him left over from a recent float. I sought out the same sort of thing here: I'd traveled to the fringe of the city and found this man. He must be well and truly gone by now. I remember going back a few years later and telling him he'd been in exhibitions and was famous—he didn't really care.

Lafkas, Greece, 1987

While you're explaining shots, I've got to ask about the two women in the hats.
That one was taken in Hawaii in 1983. This was a seminal image for me, it sort of really ignited my color obsession. They were these professional twins, just having lunch together. I saw them the next day on the beach, in matching outfits again. It was pretty amazing.

Hawaii, 1983

Chromophobia will be showing at the Colour Factory from March 5 to 28.

Words by Jack Callil, follow him on Twitter.