Commissioned as part of Melbourne’s inaugural PHOTO2021 festival, Emma Phillips’ Send Me A Lullaby examines the city of Melbourne in a way that challenges the idea of a city with the reality of change. While we may be used to photographs of steel-and-glass icons, sunset skylines and clear blue skies, Phillips’ work steps five kilometres away from the centre of town and examines how the less typical is effortlessly normal and so very loved.
Up front I’d like to say that I find it really hard to examine this work in the way I look at other books. Phillips has photographed a place I’ve lived for 26 years, and suburbs I’ve lived in for all of those years. The places she’s showing I could find on a map, walk to blindfolded, have driven, ridden, walked, jogged and talked past innumerable times. There are local references in many of the photographs, especially the landscapes that even many Melbournians would miss if they’ve not spent a lot of time in the Inner West and Inner North. How then can I write easily about what the photographs speak to? I may as well be looking at myself.
Nevertheless, what struck me initially were the landscapes: exteriors of buildings, the side of train tracks, plants and main street suburbia. For an outsider these may appear to be gruff, ugly in a way, the buildings cast in pallid greys. Yet, for those that know anything about Melbourne there is a real affection for these places. Each is an icon in the way only a local story can be, truly loved for its warts-and-all quality. Franco Cozzo (a local beloved furniture retailer, whose advertisements are more famous than his wares) may seem like the most obvious of these, but, to my eyes, Kensington’s shipping yards are truly something one has to love in order to photograph. Melbourne, it’s said, lacks Sydney’s beauty (which I think is so obviously true, sorry guys), and these parts of the book are almost serene in the way that Phillips has chosen to own some of the ugliness of the city while lifting it up on those same terms.
The portraits, too, continue to demonstrate a level of insider knowledge, intimacy and affection. They do this, I think, by singling out people one could easily pass but in ways we often don’t see each other. An older man holding a picture of his younger self, a couple nude on a bed, a young man looking slyly and playfully at the camera/viewer. There is a distinct diversity in the people photographed and this is clearly something deliberate: while we may be a changing place there will always be a home for many here. Phillips has created a real celebration in these photographs of personality, showing us not the surface or texture but something much less photogenic and more powerful: care.
Phillips has created a real celebration in these photographs of personality, showing us not the surface or texture but something much less photogenic and more powerful: care.
That sense of looking past the surface of something or someone, is at the heart of this work. The Eureka skydeck and Yarra River are nowhere to be seen (in what must be the only existing government funded photographs of Melbourne to depart from those clichés), but the Continental Wholesalers, Sydney Road and handpainted signs on 70s wood panelling are cherished in the same way a worn armchair is. It’s not the visuals that make these things enticing, it’s the fact that they matter; they are a part of what makes Melbourne what it is in a way that’s easy to overlook but impossible to deny.
Send Me a Lullaby appears to be comprised mainly of snapshots, though I’d be incredibly surprised if Phillips actually shot this without a lot of formal consideration. It’s hard to think of a woman dressed up for the races who just happened to be sprawled on the floor, or of an older bloke who just happened to be picking up a photo that looks like his younger self. Or even that the photographer just happened to be walking along a construction site near the train. Initially I found this quite jarring: there’s an obvious attention paid to the photographs and an equally obvious attention paid to making them seem serendipitous, unstudied and a by-product of the experience, rather than the reason for being there in the first place.
The photos I like aesthetically are the most classic of the edit, yet the more I returned to the work the more the choices resonated. Melbourne is in flux: its roots are clear yet they are also well-used, dilapidated. The more I thought about snapshots in relation to change and evolution the more it made sense: we can never really see change in a photograph (just juxtaposition, which isn’t the same thing), but the snapshot implies a pace, implies that the subjects are not fixed, nor can they be completely understood or seen. Similarly, if I see a lot of affection and love in the photographs then they are obviously secondary to the experience of that emotion. A city, therefore, isn’t its marketing, or its icons, a city is the change that’s happening to the memories and spaces that still exist and the quality of feeling imbued in the way one lives there.
We may only see the past in the photographs, but it would be naïve to assume that’s the future. This is a smart work that deftly avoids being a predictable repackaging of Melbourne, but still imbued with a clear sense of tenderness and driven by a concept that is as rigorous as it is subtle. While I personally find the text at the beginning a bit gauche and the snapshots not quite what I like to see, I don’t think they make any less sense when the book is taken on its own terms.
It’s clear Emma Phillips really does love Melbourne – loves it enough to try and find what makes it tick. Send me a Lullaby deals with things that maybe aren’t seen by anyone who doesn’t live here, listen to radio at ungodly hours, who hasn’t been on the other side of Bolte Bridge, caught between million dollar homes and an endless sea of ports built over a marsh. I hope that people who are from Melbourne recognise the love in the work and I hope people who don’t live here recognise what’s worth loving about this place. I think the book stands up to that lofty aim.