Eamon Donnelly’s Milk Bars take a new form

Published:  September 17, 2014
Bonnie Abbott

Eamon Donnelly, the illustrator, founder of The Island Continent and avid Australiana ephemera collector, has a longstanding obsession with the Aussie Milk Bar. What was a common childhood hangout is now, for many communities, a suburban relic – one that Donnelly has long been interested in documenting and celebrating.

Ahead of the release of his 400-page Milk Bar publication, Donnelly is on his way to Sydney for Art & About, where his Milk Bar photography will be flown, as banners, across the city. He shares the progress of his project, and what he feels Milk Bars truly mean to Australian history.

You have been working, as you say, “furiously” on your Milk Bar book project, which has turned into a mammoth publication. Can you tell us the resources you are using, and people you are meeting, in the making of this book?

What started off as one quick snap of my closed childhood Milk Bar a decade ago, has turned into a huge undertaking and a pretty amazing journey. When I published the first softcover Milk Bars in 2012, I mentioned my childhood Milk Bar in a press article, which our family called simply “Dave’s” after the name of the owner. Incredibly, the family read it and got in contact with me. The project came full circle – Peggy, “Dave’s” wife, and her daughter showed me photos of Dave in the shop – incredible old black and white portraits of them standing behind the counter holding up enamel Milk Shake cups. They shared their memories from owning, living and running the Milk Bar. To see these images and hear these stories was quite emotional, as this particular Milk Bar was the inspiration for this entire project, and the basis for many themes in my work – the old Australia.

Suddenly these photos I had accumulated, an archive of shopfronts and faded advertising, became something more personal than purely a photography project. I started to get emails from families who ran Milk Bars who shared beautiful stories and family photographs with me. So many people that saw the first book or heard about the archive had such fond and nostalgic memories of Milk Bars. I realised there was more to this project than the images alone, and I began to curate all of this content towards the coffee table book.

 What do you think it is about Milk Bars that give an insight into our Australian past?

The Milk Bar is an Australian invention – it’s as iconic as a meat pie, Aussie Rules, Vegemite, Holden and Peters ice cream. It’s the old community of the suburbs, everyone knowing your name, you could chat to your local Milk Bar owner about sport, politics, religion, life. It’s also the migrant success story – what makes our country so rich and diverse. The term Milk Bar first appeared in 1932 in the business name of Greek migrant Joachim Tavlardis, or ‘Mick Adams’. He opened up what is regarded as Australia’s first Milk Bar in Martin Place Sydney, The Black & White 4d Milk Bar, an Australian take on the American deco soda bars. The idea soon spread across Australia, with thousands of stores opening up within a decade. It’s that family business, mum and dad running the shop 364 days a year, the family living out the back, opening at 4am for the milk and paper deliveries and closing at 9pm. It’s a tale of good, honest, hard work.

You have been invited to this year’s Art & About Sydney as a banner gallery artist, which you will use to show some of your Milk Bar photography. What can people expect to see?

They will see 100 of the best images from the archive spread across roughly 700 4.5m by 1.5m banners throughout the CBD and surrounding villages of Glebe, Redfern and Kings Cross. There will be images of sun kissed shopfronts, faded signage, dusty shelves, dimly lit interiors and milk shakes. Sydney has quite a few iconic Milk Bars still open – the traditional Greek-owned Milk Bar that still serves milk shakes, a toasted sandwich and a chat. So for the book, and in conjunction with Art & About, I made a special road trip up to Sydney this past July to photograph the closed and open stores along the Hume Highway and in Sydney, and many of these images are featured in the Banner Gallery.

You have been dedicated to this whole project for 10 years now, with it taking different forms over the years. What does this project mean to you? And what will you do when it is finished?

I would never had imagined that this project would take me in the direction it has in the last 2 years. It taken over so much of my life. I used to snap Milk Bars on occasion, using Polaroid film to get that rich nostalgic feel, just as a small personal project. Then the move to digital opened up the project to be more of an archive – shooting the closed stores before they got demolished, painted over and repurposed. Then after the first book, the personal connections I gained have given it so much depth and meaning. I have met and spoken to so many amazing people, past and current owners and families, all sharing their personal histories. Once the book is finally out, either through a publisher or self published, I imagine I will still be taking photos of Milk Bars until there are no more to take, for decades to come!

You can follow the progress of Eamon Donnelly’s book through his Twitter and Facebook, and his site: http://eamondonnelly.com/

Main image: Eamon Donnelly, photographed by Mark Lobo. All images: Eamon Donnelly.

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