Interview: Kim Walvisch

A while ago, I interviewed one of my favourite Instagram photographers, Kim Walvisch (instagram: @sublurb).

How did you first begin taking photos?

About 5 years ago when my daughter was born, she was a seriously bad sleeper. The only way I could get her to nap was to go on long walks around our neighbourhood. To keep myself entertained, I began snapping iPhone photos of uniquely suburban things—kitsch letterboxes, bizarre fountains, impressive chimneys, peculiar topiary and other suburban weirdness.

It also didn’t take long to realize that many of the lovely older houses were being demolished and replaced by nondescript townhouses. Instead of beautiful thoughtful architecture and big gardens, I was witnessing the neighbourhood being changed into something much less desirable and bland. At some point, I made a conscious decision to start creating a photographic archive of ‘old suburbia’. I started walking up and down every street capturing portraits of houses slated for demolition. After a while, my phone wasn't really serving me well, so I invested in a full frame DSLR. I’ve pretty much continued on this mission in a far more dedicated way since then. To date, I've photographed over 110 suburbs around Melbourne, capturing old Milk Bars, neighbourhood stores, unusual houses, impressive architectural detail and whatever else catches my eye.

One thing I'm continuously struck by in your photography is your very keen sense of detail, not so much in regards to texture or surface (though there is that), but in terms of the weight that human habitation inflicts upon the landscape. You can see it in the faded shopfronts, the hand-wrought facades, the pocked and rusted surfaces, and the very particular sense of character of these places. What do you look for in a photograph?

I’m so glad you’ve noticed my interest in the dilapidated and decrepit. I think there’s such much beauty to be found in weathered and worn objects and places. Once I was taking a photo of a house with a tattered old blind. The owner came out and couldn’t fathom what I was doing. When I explained I just liked her torn blinds, she laughed and said, ‘Damn—I thought you might’ve been organizing to have them fixed! It’s nice you think they look arty, though.’

I’m looking for things that are nostalgic to me or in a broader sense—that invoke a sense of familiarity, a feeling of being ‘home’. I look for the ordinary—people chatting in doorways, reading newspapers, waiting for a bus surrounded by shopping. Again, this is about summoning beauty from the mundanity of suburban life.

The main theme of your work seems to be the exploration of the suburb as it used to exist. It's a vision that almost belongs to a different, pre-modern, era: an era where human hands and craft were responsible for the built world. Is there a sense of nostalgia that prompts you in your photography, a need to document a rapidly fading version of our built environments, or something else?

You’ve hit the nail on the head in an almost disturbingly accurate way. Nostalgia is an overarching theme. I’ve been desperately trying to document suburbia (pre-90’s) before developers decimate it. I grew up in quite an old suburb that was predominantly single storey houses with large gardens. The architecture varied, but was littered with California Bungalows, a lot of 30’s and 40’s deco and a fair amount of stylish modernist homes. When I walk around there today, it’s quite depressing as the bulk of those old houses have been torn down and replaced by enormous featureless McMansions, townhouses or big blocks of apartments. It’s an entirely different place. What’s noticeably absent is detail, but also that sense of pride people had in making their houses and gardens special. I’m hopefully trying to capture that on quite a few different levels.

Unfortunately, a lot of “ordinary” but really quite detailed and beautiful houses are being knocked down every day, as they’re not heritage protected. I have so many photos of houses/buildings that are now gone only to be replaced with something so abysmal that it’s just plain sad. I’m not just cataloguing real estate, though, it’s more than that.

You don’t photograph people very much in your work. Is this a conscious decision?

Actually, I love taking photos of people, but it just doesn’t happen as often as I’d like. On occasion, I've asked people if I could take their photos, especially barbers inside traditional barbershops. Mostly, I’m just snapping people in the street and opportunities don’t always arise. Thankfully nobody’s taken issue with me taking their photo, except for one old man who ran across the road, hailed a cop car and told them I’d illegally taken his photo and to arrest me. I was actually taking a photo of a butcher shop and he just happened to be in the frame. The police thought the whole thing was a bit ridiculous and told him I was allowed to take photos in the street and to leave me alone. It was all a bit dramatic!

Since I started following your Instagram account I’ve become aware of the specific aesthetic of the ‘Australian’ suburb that I never really noticed before. Just the other day, I was walking home from the post office and walked past a squat, sharp topiary in front of a faded yellow weatherboard house and thought to myself, ‘That’s a Sublurb right there.’ Do people come up to you and say the same thing?

They do! I often have people sending photos of houses they think I’ll appreciate because they're ‘so Sublurban-ish;. I love when people take a photo of something in their neighbourhood and say it’s an homage to my Instagram account Sublurb. It’s quite an honour! It also makes me happy that I’m drawing people’s attention to their immediate surroundings. It’s amazing how often people will say “I’ve walked place this place a thousand times and only since I’ve followed your Instagram account did I notice it has gorgeous detailed brickwork”. I find that kind of thing really heartwarming.