Book Review: A Nostalgic Journey through Retro Melbourne

It almost seems ironic that Retro Melbourne has emerged in futuristic 2014. In a current photographic world that has been dominated by Instagram images and the extroverted selfie craze, it also seems perfectly-timed for Retro Melbourne to burst into life and challenge how Melburnians should capture their timeless moments.

Fred Mitchell, an esteemed Victorian photographer, lived during a time when money was scarce and self-sufficiency was key. In his words, Mitchell’s photos were made when “you had thought through all the things you could do wrong, and avoided them”. This ethic travelled with Mitchell throughout his training in photography, and kept with him during the decades as a photographer.  

Mitchell has decided to reveal some of his rare and never-before-seen images of Melbourne, the most liveable city in the world for 2014 (according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s annual liveability survey). His images are presented in a gorgeous hard-cover tome, perfectly titled Retro Melbourne, and his effervescent visuals are a poetic, retrospective path taken through Melbourne’s history last century.  

There’s also a dreamy nostalgia that transcends some of Mitchell’s photos, capturing a time when the sparse traffic was a little bit slower and Melburnians moved at a quieter pace. Mitchell has had the advantage of pooling from his 80-plus years of work and memories to capture Melbourne’s essence immaculately.

Some expected scenes can be found throughout Retro Melbourne, like the excitement and grit of a VFL grand final win (complete with streamers strewn across the MCG) or split-second moments caught from trackside during Melbourne Cup time. There’s also the lovely depiction of Melbourne’s iconic landmarks such as Flinders Street Station, daintily decorated in readiness for the Queen’s visit while pedestrians scurry “under the clocks”.

Yet, Retro Melbourne proves to be a storyline of surprises and divided into intoxicating chunks. Each chapter is aptly named and encompass the city well – from the city’s CBD, to lifestyle and recreation, suburbs, country towns and railways. These pit-stops, almost mini-destinations, delve into Melbourne’s highly revered reputations in sport, music and the arts, fashion, architecture, food and culture. Those who aren’t as widely versed on Melbourne can take a small history lesson in the Introduction; a rightful pre-empter to set the reader well on their way through the city’s younger years.

Along wide tree-lined city streets and through working class suburbs like Collingwood and Preston to sleepy rural Victorian townships, the reader – either young or old – embarks on a colourful journey. Conversely, younger readers would be enticed by the promise of discovery in this book. Who would’ve ever thought there was a hardware store on Faraday Road in the middle of Carlton?

And then there are those images that depict the reminiscent stories handed down to the younger generations by Melbourne’s baby-boomers and great-grandparents. There’s a snapshot of the tradition where milk was once delivered by a milkman in containers door-to-door. And don’t forget the age-old tradition of buying a daily paper off the pavement and reading it on the tram or train to work. Surprisingly, unlike those milk containers, some people have held on to their tradition of reading their paper on trains in Melbourne to this day.  

It’s all well and good that Melbourne was voted the most liveable city this year, but the traveller must experience it for him or herself. And what better place to start than with some worthy trip-notes, that make up Retro Melbourne, narrated by Mitchell and his poignant visions. Retro Melbourne is bursting with history and hidden gems throughout, and is best enjoyed over a coffee at a favourite Melbourne café or in the company of an old friend like an ageing Melbourne landmark.


Take a trip through Melbourne’s history with Retro Melbourne by Fred Mitchell, available now through New Holland Publishers. RRP AUD$45.95.


A copy of Retro Melbourne was provided to Fire & Tea for review purposes by New Holland Publishers

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