National Archives of Australia

Issue 5 January 2012

Big skies, big horizons, small towns

Far-flung towns across Australia are the subject of a new photographic exhibition at the Archives in Canberra. Smalltown challenges the romantic ideal of rural and remote towns through visually stunning large-format photographs by Martin Mischkulnig. Archives staff member Melanie Harwood shares her experience of small towns, and her response to the exhibition.

I first entered Mt Isa at night. The glow of the mines intensified upon approach, as if the town had captured the last vestiges of the sunset. My stomach stirred, and I felt a heady mix of relief from journey’s end and the carnival-like beauty of the intensely lit industrial backdrop. We continued to the centre of town, and pushed our faces against the cross-mesh wire perimeter fence of the mine and watched the molten metal ‘pour’.

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Remote Mt Isa, 1971. NAA: A1500, K27607

In the morning, the reality of this remote mining town descended like a hangover. Bleak, steel, skeletal-like structures replaced the dazzling lights of the night before, the mechanical sounds now a constant irritation. Still, there is always adventure in new places, and I stayed in this remote Queensland town, albeit in the ‘tourist park’, for another six months. Experiencing the underbelly of this ‘small town’ was easy, as I lived and worked in the community. But I’m sure it was made more palatable by the fact that I could ‘up sticks’ and go back to the city at any time.

Martin Mischkulnig explores small towns, including Mt Isa, through the lens of someone who has really lived small-town life. As a child of parents who ran motels in remote and rural locations, Mischkulnig captures the rarely seen side of small towns – the ‘fugly’ truth about the physical and social isolation, the stark landscapes and built ugliness. These are not the photographs of glossy tourist brochures, or promotional shots of idyllic screen-play settings.

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Katherine, Northern Territory, 2007. © Martin Mischkulnig

Smalltown is not designed to be sentimental, but to me, the exhibition is inherently beautiful and moving. The oversized photographs loom large along the walls, and draw you into a world that is much more detailed, richer and interpretive than any tourist postcard. Every motel, truck stop, railway cottage, corrugated iron shed, every piece of road-sign graffiti and the endless unchanging landscape are full of mystery and intrigue.

Put simply, Smalltown provoked a nostalgia for my Australian travels and childhood holidays. Just as I peered through the car window as a child, I felt compelled to look into each photo and consider the life that exists beyond the frame.

The illustrated book that accompanies the exhibition includes a thought-provoking essay by acclaimed author (and small-town dweller), Tim Winton. Here, Winton talks about the ‘small-town interloper’ – the visitor who ‘sees too little and imagines too much’. I am the small-town interloper, in both my experience of small towns and my response to Mischkulnig’s photos.

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Sunday soccer at Mt Isa, 1970. NAA: A12111, 2/1970/33A/1

My father and his siblings are not interlopers, having lived their childhood and teenage years in half a dozen small towns, including Broken Hill. Broken Hill features in the exhibition, and my Uncle Rod’s fibre-board dwelling comes to mind. The house he shares with his wife is filled with the promises of the 1950s and 60s – the fading Charles Roka prints, Bakelite spice canisters, laminate tables and matching vinyl chairs. The backyard is all sheds and concrete and corrugated iron, and an original Hills hoist restrains a gnarly red heeler cross. These are pleasant memories for me.

I expect my father to disagree and share a rueful account of small-town life, its insular attitudes, embedded lack of opportunity, the hardship of remote and forbidding landscapes. Yet he, too, shares my nostalgia. From Corowa to Broken Hill, he talks about his ‘Huckleberry Finn’ days, of lifelong friendships borne of red dirt, memorial swimming pools and milk bars; his love of art inspired by his outback experiences. Forty years later he is quick to defend small towns from the city-slicker attitude, even though he is surely, now, a city slicker himself.

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Woomera, South Australia, 2006. © Martin Mischkulnig

‘Small towns have changed, but not because of some deficiency in the people,’ he says. ‘The beautiful buildings are still there; the post offices, the old stone houses, the miners’ cottages in Oxide Street. There’s industrial beauty in the structure of the mines themselves. But for a mining town like Broken Hill, isolated and distant, it is easy to replace the railway tracks with ugly shopping malls and “suck the life” out of the place.’

‘When I worked in the mining industry,’ he continues, ‘the companies put life back in the town. They had the mine dental clinic, contributed to the hospital and built buildings. Now the mining staff fly in and fly out, and the town is left to drift on its own recourse. The people are not responsible for any decline. That is just the result of city-dweller economics.’

It seems the Smalltown exhibition has stirred nostalgia for him too, while giving rise to his opinions on small-town demise.

Whether you’re a city-dweller, an interloper or a ridgy-didge small-town inhabitant, Smalltown’s large-scale imagery is sure to provoke an inner stirring. For some, it’s a curious peek out the window of the station wagon; for others it’s a documentary about the bleak, isolated, architecturally starved and often transient nature of small towns in remote and rural Australia. Whatever your response, Smalltown is a photographic exhibition not to be missed.

Smalltown is a touring exhibition from the Historic Houses Trust and is on show at the Archives in Canberra until 26 February 2012.

One comment on "Big skies, big horizons, small towns"

  1. Marilyn Brazel says:

    The photo of Woomera really emphasises the isolation of this small town.

    Having lived ‘just up the road’ at Roxby Downs for 11 years, I have passed by this particular scene many times.

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