Gems in the cabbage patch


A little over 2 years ago I wandered into a cramped and dusty second hand shop in Balmain, Sydney. Every nook and cranny was filled to overflowing. Lit seemingly via a dirty front window and the ever open front door the interior darkness hid a treasure trove.

The gnarled, stooped man sitting patiently, hidden except for his eyes behind a glass cabinet, spoke in a whisper but his words were spun gold. You knew as soon as you met him that here was an old soul, not just chronologically but to look into his eyes and hear of his journeys through life, his was a prosperous life, in all the ways that count.

I found we had a mutual passion for ancient national geographic magazines and I lost a hard fought battle to make him part with a 1959 edition in the month of my birth. He was a cagey old  bugger but forever eager to tell a yarn and share his passions.

I found he was a an avid gardener and regularly hosted a garden show on a national radio program. I wondered where he ever got the energy to spring out of bed at the requisite 3am for that demanding  task but he did, and he loved it. Thrived on it seemingly.

He told me he had a garage full of old stuff stored because he had no more room in the shop. That I can vouch for. With barely enough room  to pass in the aisle as the sides lurched inwards and definitely not enough room for two people to pass each other, you had to move around the shop in a clockwise or anti-clockwise direction depending on which way the existing clientele was meandering.

I loved it. There were old gramophones, tinny old radios, an exotic collection of old and unusable cameras and some usable ones as well. Books were in evidence about the height of young trees, old vinyls, postcards, crockery, cracked and new and photos galore.

I pottered for a while getting tired as my eyes ran marathons around the shop. I found a very old Russian camera that I bought for $10 and was pleasantly surprised to find it still in working order. I never did buy any of the national geographic magazines as they were unceremoniously propping up  an impressive collection of suitcases that were older than the shopkeeper was and to get into the front window space would have taken a contortionist an inordinate amount of both time and skill.

But I lucked out sifting through the boxes of old photographs. Many were very old, no doubt collected from deceased estates and anyone who could out-fox the fox. Mostly very formal they made me muse about the collective changes in portrait photography over many decades.

I think most people would have searched through the first one or two of the piled high boxes but then they would have lost interest and moved on to something else. But I found myself wondering about the back story for many of the images I saw. Who were these people? were they happily married? Did that sad little girl grow up to have a happy life? So I found myself digging deep, through every box and down to the deep bottom of the trunks. More than once I pulled up a photo negative, unprotected, and held it high to the light to see a grainy impression of forgotten times.

Then I unearthed a gift.

Abandoned at the bottom of one such trunk I saw a dirty frayed album. I gingerly pulled it up and inspected the outside. Nothing flashy, its faded exterior revealed that it was a photo negative album. Scratchy writing on the front cover scrawled someones’ name. It was old and seemingly worthless but with eager eyes and a tentative touch I opened it and revealed an inscription. The inscription read
“NEGATIVES of photos taken when on a trip to India for attachment with black watch 51st Sikhs after graduation from RMC”

It seemed strange and I wasn’t quite sure what it all meant, or in deed what all the words were. Only later did the inscription make more sense but it was enough for me to turn the page over and then my brows went up as I read the subjects listed. Allahabad, Pachmarhi, Kohat, Penang, Nagasaki, Kobe, Tokyo, Shanghai to name a few. Jo, my companion for our outing on that day had long since wandered out of the shop and was idly mosying from shop to shop, keeping herself entertained. My heart beat faster as I contemplated invading the life of this unknown person who had the good fortune to visit these locations.

I opened folio sleeve number one holding the first of 4 negatives up and found a world apart from any I had known. I travel extensively and have been to many unusual places but I knew immediately I was on to a find.

I saw cherry blossoms in Japanese gardens, the Taj Mahal, a snake charmer and  what looked to be an Australian digger (Australian slang term for soldier).

As gently as I could in my excitement I replaced the negatives to their compartments, said to Mike behind the glass cabinet to “hold that for me, would you” and raced outside to tell Jo the good news. Jo being an artist, was agog and raced back inside with me to check the find.

Mike sold me that negative album for $20…

It took me 18 months to find that the original owner of these negatives had died in 1980 and yesterday I launched an exhibition of just 18 of the 102 images from the collection.

Asia in the 1920s
Asia in the 1920s

I feel blessed to have had this interaction.

The exhibition runs for the month of May at Societe Cafe on Danks St Waterloo.

I’ve had so much pleasure recreating the images from their negatives, everything I did myself. It was like uncovering a new world, and really, it was. Places I’ll never go to in my lifetime and all captured in an age long gone. There’s a photo of Nagasaki before the bomb was dropped on it and of a Tokyo that bears no comparison to what it is today. Images of Varanasi or Benares as it was known.

This project taught me patience and reproduction skills and even my long term addiction to research paid off for this little venture. The images are a wonderful collection, I’m just not sure what to do with them now. The military College(s) are not interested in them because, though wonderful, they don’t exactly fit their profile for military collection. I’m currently researching other bodies that might be interested. So if anyone has any suggestions I’d be happy to hear from you.

I haven’t even given you the back story on this gentleman  that took the photos but its enough so say that something like this should not pass by and disappear into oblivion. Another time I will share with you  stories from his life

For now this story is about Mike and his passion of all things old and used. I ventured into his shop many times over the ensuing months and found several more “finds”. What a grand old guy he was.

Thanks Mike, people like you are hard to find.

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