- captured! Ikon Studio street photographer at work
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©Detail from a candid street photograph of Vali Myers and an unidentified companion, taken in 1950 by an unknown photographer at the Ikon Studio in Martin Place, Sydney. Caroline Simpson Library and Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums.
Vali Myers: Teen icon in street photography
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On a sunny winter day in 1950, two young women confidently walk hand in hand down Martin Place in Sydney.
Both wear pants with coats and flat shoes and carry school bags. The woman on the left has characteristic dark, arched eyebrows, framed by bangs and loose strands of hair. Her cool, knowing gaze is very different from that of her companion, who appears to be laughing. They approach a street photographer who is waiting for them and turn their attention to the camera. The clasp clicks. After that meeting, the photographer would have offered them a card inviting them to see the photo – and buy it. Perhaps one of the women took the card, or perhaps not. We do not know if this image was seen by any of the subjects or even if it was printed. The negative survives in a collection of 127 rolls of developed film containing nearly 5,000 street shots taken by a defunct company called Ikon Studio.
Seventy years later, this digitized negative was posted on a Sydney Living Museums online photo gallery and almost immediately the woman with the striking face was identified as Vali Myers (1930-2003), a Melbourne woman who became an international activist. in the 1950s and 1960s. rose to fame as a dancer, artist, bohemian and muse. The woman pictured with Vali remains unknown.
Candid street photograph of Vali Myers and an unknown companion taken in Martin Place, Sydney by an unknown Ikon Studio photographer in 1950. Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums.
Vali Myers was not even 20 when the photograph was taken in June or July 1950, but she was already a leading dancer with the Melbourne Modern Ballet Company, performing at Melbourne's Union Theatre, Town Hall and Assembly Hall. Although she had difficulty remembering the dance steps (much to the dismay of her teachers), her technique was described as exceptional, and her natural talent and personal talent allowed her to improvise masterfully.1 After proving herself on the spot as a dancer professional, she wanted to continue her career in Paris.
The Ikon Studio photo was taken shortly before Myers left Australia, but little is known about his visit to Sydney on the eve of his departure. We know that she stayed at the Port Jackson Hotel in The Rocks; Many years later, in 1969, she completed an artwork entitled Death in Port Jackson Hotel. The handwritten text that accompanies this work perhaps indicates her mentality during her last weeks in Australia: “This drawing, which took me 2 years, is the suicide of a 19-year-old girl, but also a rebirth, a flaming” 2
captured! Ikon Studio street photographer at work
A remarkable acquisition of 5,000 street photographs provides a vivid and insightful record of a Sydney street in the 1950s and offers a rare glimpse through the street photographer's lens.
Vali Myers on the beach in 1948, photographer unknown. Photo courtesy of the Vali Myers Art Gallery Trust.
Vali Myers and friend aboard the RMS Maloja in 1950, photographer unknown. Photo courtesy of the Vali Myers Art Gallery Trust.
Myers departed Australia on the RMS Maloja, perhaps boarding the ship in Sydney on 22 July, or embarking in Melbourne a few days later. On the evening of July 25, Vali's friends Leonie Barr, Margaret Readion and Billie Robinson said goodbye as the passenger ship pulled away from the docks in Port Melbourne3 and they departed. Vali turned 20 on 2 August, and a few days later the ship crossed the equator.4 On the ship, she met other traveling dancers, including Ananda Shivaram and Janaki Devi, renowned practitioners of the classical Indian Kathakali dance form. They have returned to India from a tour of Australia. Also on board were ABC showman Max Green and variety stars The Ganjou Brothers and Juanita, adagio dancers who were traveling to London.
Myers lived a creative, fulfilling and bohemian life in Paris, Italy, London and New York, eventually returning to Australia in 1993 and exhibiting art until his death in 2003. The work and legacy is commemorated by the Vali Myers Art Gallery Trust and celebrated.
Vali Myers' street photo at Ikon Studio is an accidental discovery, a casual and candid image, yet strongly reminiscent of her unorthodox life and style. The two women in the photo wouldn't look out of place today as they walk down Martin Place, but their fashion choices clearly stand out from Ikon Studio's other period photographs. The women who appear in the same reel of film wear fitted coats, patterned dresses, headdresses decorated with flowers or feathers, knitted gloves, fur stoles, patterned scarves and high-heeled shoes - no slacks or ballet flats.
Rolls of 35mm film negative from the Ikon Studio archive. Caroline Simpson Library and Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums. Photo (c) Jamie North.
The monochrome photo fails to convey Vali's naturally fiery mane of red hair, nor his clear blue eyes. Her flat shoes look worn, and her distinctive high collar, baggy pants and oversized coat may have been both a style and a financial choice. A description of Vali's life after arriving in Paris - and her wardrobe - was published by People magazine on January 31, 1951. As she explained, Vali had left her homeland in part to pursue a career as a dancer and in part part to escape conventional and conservative Australia. Of her worn outfit, she told the journalist: "These were pretty much the only clothes I had because I didn't have the money to buy others during my dance studies... I got used to them and I still wear them in Paris, where they are more and more appreciated. People don't look at me unkindly... It was unbearable [in Australia] to feel people's eyes boring into me and nasty things being whispered about me as I walked by. I didn't actually escape Australia, but I wanted to find another part of the world where I could have a quieter life.”5
The “old black bag” that Vali carries with him in the Ikon Studio photo was the capsule of the young artist's creativity and biography. It contained poems she wrote, her sketches and drawings, and probably the painstakingly illustrated and annotated journals she kept for many years, along with photographs of her as a model. 6
This unidentified street photo brings a previously unseen moment to life and offers a new window into the Vali Myers story with new insights. Vali's confident look in front of the photographer's lens and her unconventional clothes demonstrate her independence even as a teenager.
Death at the Port Jackson Hotel, Vali Myers, 1968–69. private collection. Courtesy of the Vali Myers Art Gallery Trust.
With sincere thanks to Anne Zahalka, whose community of artists and creative friends led to the identification of the photograph. Thanks also to Ruth Cullen for sharing her knowledge and collection of rare books about Myers, and to Nicole Karidis and the Vali Myers Art Gallery Trust for sharing the knowledge and images that accompany this story.
- 1. "The Poetic Grace of Young Dancers", The Age, 7 de novembro de 1949, p. 4.
- 2. Vali Myers, Drawings 1949–'79, Open House, Londres, 1980, p. 58.
- 3. “Some Leave Our Shores—Others Return to Stay,” The Argus, July 26, 1950, page 32.
- 4. “Radio—from the Equator to the Chessboard,” Radio Call, 24 de agosto de 1950, p. 24.
- 5. „Australian in Paris“, People, 31 de janeiro de 1951, S. 8–9.
- 6. Ibid. The Vali Myers Art Gallery Trust website contains information about the diaries kept by Vali Myers.
About the author
Digital Asset Curator
Holly is a curator of digital assets at the Sydney Living Museums, where she is part of the collections and access team.