A source of frustration for thousands of commuters has become a source of inspiration for photographer Lyndal Irons, who has been capturing the secret life of much-maligned Parramatta Road over the last five years. Sydney Outsider spoke to Irons about her project.
What drew you to documenting Parramatta Road?
Parramatta Road contains all the ingredients for a photo project. It has significant history already and it’s in a constant state of change. It passes through around 20 suburbs of Sydney’s west and intersects an eclectic vision of western Sydney. It has shops, industry, pedestrians, drivers, new things, old things, icons, landmarks and so many stories.
How did you discover your subjects?
I’ve tried everything. I’ve connected into groups, touched base with local history organisations, been artist in residence with Liechhardt Council and lived in its motels. But mostly I just walk into places. It’s hard to develop a science to it as each business has a different structure and a different person you are meeting. I can never guess how I will be received.
Having interviewed people you’ve documented, are there any particular stories that have really stuck with you?
Yes. For me this series is all about the stories that I’ve come across: a man who has worked in the signal box in Granville for over 30 years, the mannequin called Fiona chained up outside RA Motors each day, John at AR Plastics who works in an entirely plastic universe behind a radio tower, the mystery of the De Rucci furniture man and his identity. And also the incidental moments I feel lucky to have seen. I’ve sat in on Nikki Webster’s dance classes, followed staff at Stiletto for a day in the life of Australia’s largest brothel, the Maccas carpark in Stanmore is a universe of its own and for every picture that’s made the cut there are a hundred I couldn’t shoot or wanted to shoot that didn’t eventuate or come out well enough to do the story justice.
How did people respond to being photographed?
Totally differently, always. Some people welcome me, others tell me to go away. Some will let me stay for a short time, others a long time. Some people are terribly concerned with PR and marketing and that’s never going to result in honest photographs that will last the test of time. It’s a simple project on one hand but it can be a hard ask wanting to be allowed into the life of a business to observe freely. But many people are happy to have me there and see the value in what I do.
Is there a photograph in the exhibition that’s a favourite?
I like the images at Benson Archery as it’s an interesting cross section of society and a world I’ve never been part of. Rich kids study archery at school and bush kids practice it on their land. They all come out of the wood work into this specialty shop. I found that fascinating. I also love the image at Clown School Graduation. I was just walking past when a lady invited me into the restaurant where they were holding a clown school graduation night. I never expected to find that on Parramatta Road.
How has Parramatta Road changed since you started the project?
The best thing this project has taught me is to never put anything off until tomorrow. Things constantly change out there. Property by property, businesses and signage comes and goes. There is always construction somewhere. That is very much part of the character of the road. Westconnex is making an impact now though. There are major dead sections longer than I have seen before awaiting widening or development.
How do you feel about the road after having spent so much time exploring it?
Mixed feelings. Predominantly, I feel I have gotten to know the road quite well. That’s taken time like with any person. It’s a difficult road to spend time on. It doesn’t welcome visitors, it is not made with pedestrians in mind. But perhaps because of that it is an excellent place to explore. As much as I have hated its heat and its concrete and pollution I feel that ultimately it is a very generous and resilient road. I respect that. I think we get along. Even though I have had some miserable times out there when it seems like there are no shots and everyone is at the beach and I wonder what I am doing there. Looking back now I am glad I wasn’t at the beach. I’ve learned a lot from this project.
Does this exhibition mark the end of the project?
Not the end. I will take a bit of a break and begin some new projects as a primary focus. But I will return to Parramatta Road and there are a lot of places I would still like to capture. It’s about to undergo the most radical attempt at taming it to date. It may depend on how that goes: whether Parramatta Road wins and retains its character, or maybe I won’t recognize it anymore and it will no longer be of interest.
All images © Lyndal Irons. “On Parramatta Road”, a Head On Photo Festival exhibition, is being shown until May 29 at Articulate Project Space in Leichhardt, 11am-5pm from Wednesday to Sunday.