At the Volume: Another Art Book Fair in Sydney last month – a kind of glorified zine fair for the high art crowd – I stumbled across a project spread across a single table that took me home at first sight. 2HrsNorth is a collection of ten small handmade photo books produced by a collective of photographers who have spent the last year documenting the various suburbs of Newcastle. Located two hours north up the coast from Sydney, Newcastle is Australia’s seventh largest city and my kinda hometown.
I say ‘kinda’ because, despite telling most people I come from Newcastle, I actually grew up forty minutes out of town, on the Central Coast. This evasion is pure cultural cringe: Newie has some street cred, whereas the CC is a bland paradise of beaches and strip malls that serves largely as a commuter drop off point for Sydney’s lower middle class. Newcastle is the focus of dedicated programs to reinvigorate the city and foster its culture; the Central Coast has a gaping hole where culture should be, and the best thing going for it is its deathly silence on the national stage, occasionally punctured by local political fools.
The Central Coast may be a ‘cultural wasteland’ (as Lisa Pryor wrote seven years ago – a description that still stings), but aesthetically it is one of the most beautiful tracts of land in the country, and for the most part, its plain-speaking, working class residential architecture adds to the landscape. The photographers behind 2HrsNorth, with their visual obsession with Newcastle’s fibro shacks, brick shithouses and the like, can see as much.
I’m thinking about all this, and about Newcastle in particular, because I am currently on the road heading in the same direction as many of my peers – migrating north from Melbourne to Newcastle for the National Young Writers Festival (NYWF). Established by Marcus Westbury (who instigated the groundbreaking Renew Newcastle initiative) in 1998, NYWF is a key part of the This Is Not Art festival collective, and has been supporting and developing new writers for close to two decades.
NYWF is the great DIY festival – a zine fair at heart, its programming is at its best when it is radical, impulsive and at risk of falling apart at any second. Professionalism doesn’t suit the festival, and any attempts to gentrify are to the detriment of its heart and soul. The younger and more feral the festival is, the better. True DIYers don’t read the instructions that closely, and certainly don’t listen to authority.
The arts and cultural production of Newcastle-based projects thrive on a sense of radical autonomy. Street photography, for instance, is all about doing it yourself, so it’s little surprise that this Newcastle ethos subsumes and drives the 2hrsNorth project.
2HrsNorth is also informed by the DIY spirit and visual aesthetics of skater culture. Photography and video art have long been strongholds of skaters – think of Spike Jonze, who made skater videos before he won Oscars; or skater Shaun Gladwell, who has become one of Australia’s best-regarded video artists.
2HrsNorth skates along the same lines, producing truly excellent street photography. The skater, as a sportsperson, is always on the street or in civic spaces like parks, so they have the best view of our cities and suburbs from these angles. If they also happen to be sharp-eyed photographers, we get a project as worthy of attention as 2HrsNorth. In an era where near universal civic observance has given birth to the omnipresent imaging of Google Street View, the aesthetics of street photography are more important than ever. In the relative isolation of Newcastle, the collective behind 2HrsNorth have honed their significant skills and come close to mastering the form.
The doubled pleasure of these small books – each of which features two suburbs shot by two photographers – is the simultaneous discovery of both suburbs and photographers. For instance, I had forgotten how beautiful Newcastle University’s Callahan campus is, but the set of photos dedicated to the campus retell that story for me.
Two photographers stand out amongst the literal pack, and they are paired in the same book. Edwina Richards is a social photographer par excellence – her photographs are plainly spoken, not particularly arty, and bring the people she photographs into the foreground, making them both comfortable and aware. Her subjects smile at the camera, and you feel she’s invited them to do so with great personal warmth. It’s good citizenship, if not great photography, but Newcastle – a small community often mistaken for a city – is ripe for this approach, and Richards injects life into photographs that, looking at the overall project, can too easily go for lashings of cold sea mist coupled with grey ocean spray.
Above: Mark Wojcik’s train line triptych.
Though he doesn’t warm to people so easily, it’s clear Mark Wojcik is a powerful emerging photographic talent. He sees things. He understands light – a vital skill when attempting to capture a city so enamoured of ocean and surf and open space. And he also understands movement. The triptych at the beginning of his depiction of the suburb Hexham replays the same shot of one part of the train line three times – with a suburban train, a freight train, and with no train. This recalls the triple functions of Newcastle – suburbia, industry, and nothingness (there’s that cultural wasteland call again). Wojcik makes art out of these three different historical, contemporary, and probably future states of Newcastle. It’s fine photography.
Wojcik’s photographs at times risk tipping Newcastle into parody – a too-easy evocation of 80s aesthetics threatens to push the shots, and indeed the city itself, into stasis. But such is the risk of living and working in Newcastle. That balance of binaries suggests that these photographers’ visions are, in some way, the heirs to Marcus Westbury’s. Do they know thy father though? And do they even really care? Again, like all good DIYers, they won’t bow down to authority – to be an authority on DIY, as Westbury is, is still to be an authority.
The real question that Wojcik and 2HrsNorth’s photographers raise is this: Where is Newcastle now? On the basis of their photos, it appears to be in the exact spot where many of us left it, and to largely serve the same function it always has. Thanks to Westbury’s tender care for its civic and cultural architecture, it looks healthier. Newcastle will always be there – it’s too big to truly die. And we can rest safe in the knowledge that there will always be a DIY culture – festivals, cultural innovators, photographers et al – to document the change, or rail against its criminal stasis.