Photoessay: Living the Australian Dream, part I: the landscape

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The set

Interestingly, the notion of the ‘Australian Dream’ is much like the American one: a land of opportunity, space, freedom, big skies, friendly people and a relaxed, laid-back lifestyle. Though I grew up in Melbourne until I was 9, I haven’t been back in nearly 18 years; I was surprised by how much the place had changed, and at the same time, how much it hadn’t. There was a sense of international polish about it that wasn’t there before, or perhaps I hadn’t noticed it.

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Dividers, trams and square turns

But look a little closer, and there were still very much those typical Australian cues – the verandahs, the early 20th century architecture (albeit carefully preserved under modern paint and window dressing); the brick alleyways (now covered under an increasing amount of ‘artistic’ graffiti), the large V8 sedans. It actually felt quite American in a lot of ways – not just because of the space and expansiveness of the place and the general freedom of things, but also because I thick the two countries were really coming of age around the same time, and it shows clearly in the general architecture and city planning. Probably not New York, but more like what I’d imagine Seattle or Chicago to be like: undergoing general gentrification and hipsterification (if that’s a word).

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Coffee everywhere

This is the first photoessay in probably two or three; we need to set the scene and context for observations of the people through the details; the actors will come next. It takes place in two halves – color and monochrome; I felt this was appropriate because the feel of the place changes dramatically depending on whether the sun is out or not. In the sunshine, everything has a feel of polished just-so-ness to it; it’s almost like being on a movie set. But wait half an hour for things to turn overcast, and there are aspects which feel incredibly depressing indeed – as though you’re in a dead-end town in the middle of nowhere. Notice the extreme contrast in feel between the first and last images. I’m sure the reality is somewhere between the two, and much closer to the optimistic end; still, I’d want to be indoors when the clouds roll in.

This set was shot with a D800E, D4, Zeiss 1.4/55 Otus and Voigtlander 90/3.5 APO-Lanthar. Enjoy! MT

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A carnival atmosphere

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A different time and place, but also now

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Modern dwelling

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Signs of chaos

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Transition time

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Reality and unreality

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A return to the monolithic order

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Dominance established

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Cows of the modern herd

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Dead end


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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | 2012 onwards. All rights reserved


  1. wow, the framing and composition of this series…amazing! This is making me want to get some Otus 55mm fun too some point in future.

    • Thank you. At least you can be fairly sure Zeiss won’t steal your images.

      That said, the framing and composition are very much lens independent. You should know that 😉

  2. Ming, I bow to the Master as your photographs almost jump off of the page with a kind of three dimensional aspect. However, I would like to make an editorial comment if I may. I have a hobby of studying Monet ‘s paintings and as with all the great ones…his “style evolved.” Changing distinctly from his twenties through his midlife…and then the mastery that we all recognize after his sixties. When looking at photos from people that I admire…I internalize what I want to copy and what I prefer not to copy. Years ago, I was taught that a black and white photo should have pure white somewhere, pure black somewhere and move the eye as one looks at the photo. I have noticed that your b&w photos rarely had pure white. It is almost as if your style was a transition of grey tones. Whether I am right or wrong, it still remains “my impression” of your photos. Until now! I love the new color tones or pallet that you seem to have adopted. The “colors seem happy” to me. 😉 Sounds kind of stupid to call a spectrum of tones by that emotion but that’s what I see. So, my question is : am I imagining it or did you “evolve to a “new color style?” I like it!!

    • No question that every artist’s style evolves. What I show is first and foremost a reflection of the actual subject, but it’s quite possible these seem ‘happier’ because of the contrast/ quantity/ quality of light – i.e. the location?

      I do actually have pure black and pure white in every image; I explained some time ago that this is necessary to allow the eyes of the viewer to ‘calibrate’ and understand the native brightness of the scene.

  3. Unerring compositional sense!

  4. Great images Ming. Curiously, your collection leaves a very strong ‘bleak’ impression, which as a resident of Melbourne is quite different to what I see. Admittedly, your ‘detail shots’ have focused on a particular slice of Melbourne and these are largley devoid of people. Which leads me to wonder what happens when I am abroad and capturing images of a place. Is my vision equally different to what the locals see. There is obviously an element of this, as I find being outside of my home territory gives my brain a major kick and I start seeing things I would not normally be attuned to. Aside from shooting with a deliberate theme in mind or editing a collection post shoot, do we unconsciously take pictures that tend to qualify our initial impression of place? Just an observation!
    Anyway, Looking forward to seeing your 2nd act!.

    • I agree with you – for some odd reason, that just happens to be the way I saw the details. There’s this sense of edgy cheeriness about it until the sun goes out, then I felt some parts took on a somewhat more sinister feel.

      Good question: I don’t think all of the images from Melbourne are bleak, but I don’t think they’re warm in the same way Havana was, either.

  5. stanis riccadonna zolczynski says:

    Sorry, not cocs but CROCS.

  6. stanis riccadonna zolczynski says:

    Where are the bloody koalas downing the 4xes hooking up with aborgie lasses. Where are Mad Maxies spreading fright and terror in backbushes. Where are the bushboys wrestling the cocs for a fancy pict. And where are downunders getting their upper IS stabilizedd

  7. Philip Ong says:

    almost immediately fell in love with Melbourne the first time I was there. beautiful place. good food. going back in December. can’t wait to see part II of this series!

  8. I can’t say whether it is negative or positive; however, I’ve noticed as the world becomes more and more “international”, connected by both international commerce and the internet, it is becoming more and more similar. As an example, I’ve visited China several times over the last decade. The last time I was there, I swear, I was in a mall that seemed more or less like any mall in the U.S. It merely had a “Chinese” flavor and of course all Chinese customers.

    (I was only slightly bummed visiting London, because it felt like I ran into more Yankees, than locals…)

    Perhaps this is an Australian landscape with an American or “Western” flavor?

    I’m curious on whether you have more people photos of Australia in part 2. The interesting thing is if you showed the pictures without subtitle or explanation, would anyone notice that they’re most Australians, instead of Americans?

    Just curious, do you still have any trace of Australian accent?

    • It’s not just you. I get the same feeling, too. I find I’ve got to travel to increasingly far-flung or insular places to get halfway decent images…

      More people in part 2, yes. Australian accent only if the voice over is played back at 2x speed – according to my video production team…

  9. Pritam Singh says:

    Take a bow, sir ! These photographs are such a pleasure to behold. Splendid work.

  10. Dustin Gilbert says:

    Hmm. Reminds me of los Angeles also in a sense. Modern. And not modern at the same time. Seems built out rather than built up. Where things aren’t so tall like they are in new York or Chicago.

    Very wonderful shots Ming. The black and whites are stunning and give the city a completely different feel. I really dig it.

  11. cows of modern herd is very cool

  12. Great set Ming.

  13. thuy pham says:

    I’m glad you are in my home city. Again all I can say is stunning capture.
    As an aside I’m contemplating on investing on my first camera system and learning photography.

  14. Great pictures as always. It feels as if some of the colour shots look a bit differently than your editing normally does. Hard to put my finger on but they seem more saturated and a bit more strong contrast? I’m mainly thinking of the first two and the “Modern dwelling”.

    • It’s a reflection of the actual quality of light. Whilst I do have a particular ‘look’ to my color images, I do try to make them relatively consistent to what went in and each other…

      • I was going to make the same comment as Martin too, which is ironic given the recent ETTR discussion … I guess people will see what they want to see. “Order” seems especially saturated and contrasty.

        • Not really – light was very hard, and as a results some colours were very punchy. I try to accurately represent the place relative to my other images…

  15. My hometown, lived there til I was nearly 30, but 12 years later living anywhere but there. Great city, but really isn’t that interesting from a visual point of view – it’s more a lifestyle thing.

    And Melbourne is NOWHERE near anything like LA.

  16. “…we need to set the scene and context for observations of the people through the details; THE ACTORS WILL COME NEXT” (emphasis mine).

    A conscious (or otherwise) nod to Doisneau? He was quoted as saying “I find the stage, and the players will come”. A hint to photographers to stop running around like headless chickens, wait, and something / somebody will come along to make your picture happen.

  17. I loved this. As an anthropologist, and more to the point, a socioarchaeologist (read “anthropology of non-extant cultures based on the interpretation of the material record”), I find it fascinating how we can watch the shift of cultural values and ideologies represented in how we use space (or don’t.), the major themes present in our settlements, materials we seem to value and what shows up consistently across layers of occupation–such as those early 20th century houses you spoke of, carefully preserved when the rest of the buildings from their era had passed away.

    I am fascinated by objects and structures, design themes and physical ideas that retain value, and are preserved or recreated over long spans of time.

  18. I’ve never visited, though I hope to someday soon. I don’t really want to go until I can take a month to really explore the continent. Based on these photos, I’d say it shares a real kinship with LA!

    • Brilliant work, as always, Ming! The sharpness if freaky!

    • Could be a selective filter on my way of seeing the world, but then again I’ve spent nearly zero time in LA…

      • ernie marton says:

        After visiting LA in the 80’s, I’d say that’s definitely a good thing. Nice shots. They inspire me to go back and look at things differently. I can usually do that when I first visit somewhere, but have much more difficulty when I’m familiar with the place.

        • Agreed – there’s this prejudgement of ‘ah, I’ve probably seen it before’ which is not always the case. That said, I think if you’re out for long enough – I was, in this case – the feeling is very different; much like visiting somewhere entirely new.

    • ernie marton says:

      Uh, no. It’s just the views that Ming has selected for this article. There are areas that feel like LA (mostly in the western outskirts), but that’s not a good thing. There are still significant areas near the the city that are quite compact and English and (mostly) old as well as spectacular colonial buildings. I was born and grew up there, but it feels quite foreign when I visit there now. There seems to be more interesting modern architecture there now though, but still a lot of of generic, “fashionable” tasteless crap.
      If you’re thinking about exploring the continent, you’ll need much more than a month. Think US distances. You can see quite a lot in a month, but it can include a lot of travel time. Unless you like temperatures in the mid to high 30’s (°C) or even 40’s, I’d strongly suggest avoiding November to February. That is also the wet season in the top end (north).

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