Saturday, January 6, 2024

Scenes from the Mall - Photographic portraits in the Belconnen Mall (1989-90)

Exhibition Review: Photography | Brian Rope

Scenes from the Mall - Photographic portraits in the Belconnen Mall (1989-90) | Spiros Coutroubas

West Gallery, Belconnen Arts Centre | 1 December 2023 – 11 February 2024 

The largest shopping centre in the satellite Belconnen area of Canberra opened for business in 1978 as that district reached a critical population mass. It was then known as the Belconnen Mall, and many still refer to it by that name. The portraits in this exhibition were all created there in 1989 and 1990. There are three distinct sets of portraits, each documenting people in different mall spaces. 

The artist, Spiros Coutroubas, has been practising photography since the 1980s, focussing on portraiture and social documentary imagery of people. His images are intended to document the present for the future. So it is most appropriate that these portraits are being exhibited for the first time more than 30 years after they were made. It is also appropriate that the exhibition venue is close by the now “shoppingtown.” 

One set, Portrait of a Stairwell, 1990, captures passers-by pausing for the photographer’s  camera as they made their way through one of the mall’s parking areas. Asked to pose right there and then in front of a portable backdrop they agreed. Except for the artist’s father, who happened to pass by, the subjects are anonymous.

Essentially we just see people in front of a plain backdrop. There is, however, part of the stairs -  showing the shots were not taken in an indoor studio. Some of the people who happened to come by that day have things with them such as different types of bags - contents unknown. In one case, we see the subject’s bicycle. In another a man has a pipe in his mouth. Such elements, plus clothing, tells us about the time period.

Belconnen Mall Parking Area Stairwell, 1990 (1) © Spiros Coutroubas

Belconnen Mall Parking Area Stairwell, 1990 (2) © Spiros Coutroubas

Belconnen Mall Parking Area Stairwell, 1990 (3) © Spiros Coutroubas

Another set, Shoppingtown, 1989 (printed 2023), is very different. Subjects include salespeople, promotional staff and performers in the common areas and supermarkets. These include a Priceline shop assistant, two Encyclopaedia Brittanica salesmen and a young Legacy Day volunteer. There’s a woman staffing a Friskies Buffet dog food display in front of the cat food shelves in Coles (with no barcodes in sight). Presumably, she was not providing free samples for people to taste on the spot. Does anyone recall Larry Keith and his Wonder Dogs, or The Whack-a-doo Show?

Friskies Buffet Pet Food Promotion, Coles Supermarket, Belconnen Mall, 1989 © Spiros Coutroubas 

Larry Keith & His Wonder Dogs,  Belconnen Mall, 1989 © Spiros Coutroubas

The Whack-a-doo Show, Belconnen Mall, 1989 © Spiros Coutroubas

In the final set displayed (a video as well as prints), Lido Bistro, 1989, regular customers of the eatery and bar have complemented their portraits by adding their names and other handwritten words on the prints. That provides an extra dimension of considerable interest.

Fred, Lido Bistro, 1989 © Spiros Coutroubas 

Geoff Young & Sue Young, Lido Bistro, 1989 © Spiros Coutroubas

Harry+Pauline, Lido Bistro, 1989 © Spiros Coutroubas

Many visitors to this exhibition will know the now Westfield Shopping Centre well. These pictures acknowledge and preserve some apparently unexceptional situations that would otherwise fade into the past. Coutroubas’s parents ran the Lido Bistro. He remembers that times were tough – record interest rates and high inflation - the Lido’s books told the story of the decline in people’s spending. Sound familiar?

All the images were taken, with a bulky medium format camera on a heavy-duty tripod, in the mall’s common areas and in a supermarket during business hours without questions from management. They feature people who are socially disadvantaged, people doing jobs they might not boast about, people who didn’t have the opportunity to look their best, and people who opened up to Coutroubas with no clear idea of what would become of his images.

Today, the Belconnen Mall prohibits photography without authorisation and conditions apply to those that get the nod. Coutroubas has noted though that, “ironically …. images of people in malls are more abundant than ever. Social media provides plenty of candid pictures and videos from smartphones and surveillance cameras - people dropping their ice creams, tripping down escalators, pranking, fighting and even stealing.”

As well as the exhibition, the artist has published a book of the prints plus very readable words about the project. It can be purchased from here and at some Canberra bookshops.

This review is also available on the author's blog here.