A New Normal

Victoria's street photographers captured the moments of kindness, creativity, hardship and surrealness that defined 2020.

Alongside these contemporary images, photographs drawn from the collections of Public Record Office Victoria and National Archives of Australia explore the concept of 'a new normal' further, looking at change in our past and reflecting on historic images that draw comparisons to what was experienced over the 12 months.

Immunisation (Circa 1980s) by PROV, VPRS 16682/P2, Unit 29Public Record Office Victoria (State Archives of Victoria, Australia)


Among the activities documented by the Department of Community Services is the work of the Maternal and Child Health Service (Infant Welfare) program which began in Victoria in 1917. Under this program, infant welfare centres were established to tackle the high levels of early childhood illness and mortality. The program, which continues to this day, offers free universal primary health services to children from birth to primary school age.

One of the most important services it offers is free immunisations of young children against once-common diseases. These diseases have now become rare thanks largely to the widespread willingness of parents to immunise their children, an effect known as ‘herd immunity’, which protects both people who have been immunised and those who have not. In this photograph, a mother and her child are under the care of a nurse and a doctor during an immunisation session in the 1980s, possibly to protect the baby against mumps or measles.

The Rest Hour (1923) by PROV, VPRS 14562/P6, Unit 5, Views of Schools and School ActivitiesPublic Record Office Victoria (State Archives of Victoria, Australia)

The Rest Hour

This photograph is among several contained in an album created by the Education Department that document the Open-Air School for Anaemics in what was semi-rural Blackburn. Many open-air schools operated in Britain, North America and Europe in the early twentieth century. Part of their daily routine featured a rest period in the fresh open air.

Alongside a nutritious diet, exposure to natural light, regular medical check-ups and close contact to nature, the open-air school movement claimed that it was possible to treat the onset of tuberculosis in children, particularly those living in the congested confines of the inner city. The photograph gives us a glimpse into part of the routine of the school. It shows a class of young pupils reclining in deckchairs on the grass outside their wooden school building, each of them covered with a blanket to keep them warm in the cold air.

Injecting Eggs (1970) by National Archives of Australia, NAA: B941/6, RESEARCH/HEALTH/19Public Record Office Victoria (State Archives of Victoria, Australia)

Injecting Eggs

For more than 70 years influenza vaccines have been grown in fertilised chicken eggs. This remains the most common method for making flu vaccines around the world. Viruses need living cells to infect and develop within; they cannot reproduce and cannot be cultivated like bacteria or fungi. Instead, the virus takes over a cell and directs the cell to create replicas of the virus. When there is enough viral matter in each egg the virus is made inactive (viruses are not strictly alive and so cannot be killed), the remaining material contains the virus antigen, which is further purified and incorporated into a vaccine. 

When injected, the antigen causes a reaction in our bodies that creates antibodies. The antibody, also known as an immunoglobulin, is a blood protein used by our immune system to recognise and attack antigens. Unfortunately, vaccines target specific virus antigens, so one injection does not protect us from all viruses; and indeed, viruses replicate so often that they mutate regularly, so we require regular flu shots for protection.

Wartime Production (Early 1940s) by PROV, VPRS 12903/P1, Item 320/02Public Record Office Victoria (State Archives of Victoria, Australia)

Wartime Production

During World War II, the production of the Newport Railway Workshops was diverted away from its usual railways function into wartime production. It was one of a number of such facilities around Australia that contributed to the war effort. At Newport this included production of the small tank units, as shown in this image, and the rear fuselage and tail assemblies of Bristol Beaufort Bombers.

Biocontainment (Suits) (1982) by National Archives of Australia, NAA: A6135, K11/10/82/5Public Record Office Victoria (State Archives of Victoria, Australia)


Fairfield Infectious Diseases Hospital operated for 92 years before closing in 1996. It began as a fever hospital, named Queen's Memorial Hospital. It treated patients for a variety of infection diseases including typhoid, cholera, smallpox, influenza, polio and scarlet fever. The international medical community had identified a rise in viral haemorrhagic diseases, like Lassa fever and Ebola; so in 1982 the High Security Quarantine Unit was set up within Fairfield Hospital grounds to research and treat these highly dangerous and contagious threats in Australia. This image shows a couple of technicians wearing level 4 biocontainment suits.

Biocontainment (Bed) (1982) by National Archives of Australia, NAA: A6135, K11/10/82/7Public Record Office Victoria (State Archives of Victoria, Australia)

This image shows one of the ten high security quarantine beds. Reportedly however, the unit only ever housed one patient who ended up being diagnosed with pharyngitis (sore throat). The unit soon shifted focus away from haemorrhagic diseases to treating and investigating a more pressing scourge; HIV/AIDS. It was researchers at Fairfield that identified the best course of action was to use a combination of drugs to treat HIV successfully. It is a treatment that is still in effect today.

Traffic Congestion (1951-10-12) by PROV, VPRS 8074/P1, Item 1, Image G.1Public Record Office Victoria (State Archives of Victoria, Australia)

Traffic Congestion

At the time this image was taken, 4:49 pm on 12 October 1951, only 15 per cent of all journeys to work in Melbourne occurred by car. This image and accompanying text comes from an album of photographic prints made by the Melbourne and Metropolitan Tramways Board during November and December 1951.

The photographs document the arrival of the new normal of traffic congestion, its causes and the effects it had on tram movements within the Melbourne CBD. The album provides convincing evidence of traffic congestion and its impact on public transport, a trend that was to worsen in succeeding decades.

Women in Science (Circa 1940) by PROV, VPRS 12903/P1, Item 330/02Public Record Office Victoria (State Archives of Victoria, Australia)

Women in Science

Victoria has never had a shortage of talented, hardworking women, eager to dedicate themselves to scientific study. In fact, from 1893 when Leonora Little became its first female graduate, through to 1920, the University of Melbourne’s science degree had the largest proportion of Australian women in any single course of study. From the late nineteenth century, and well into the twentieth century, female graduates faced enormous challenges building up research profiles that could match those of their male colleagues. For the most part they were consigned to lower status tasks such as heavy teaching workloads, laboratory assistance, and caring for libraries and specimen collections.

Common experiences included being turned down for high-status positions, being made to resign if they married and receiving lower pay than their male colleagues. Gender discrimination was so normalised that when pioneering microbiologist Nancy Millis looked for work after completing her PhD in 1952, she discovered that many companies, including Carlton and Kraft, had policies against hiring women for their laboratories.

Women persevered and gained entry into many fields of science throughout the twentieth century, making open discrimination increasingly unacceptable and forcing many unconscious biases to be questioned. Our society is still working towards equality, but the past hundred years have seen significant positive changes for women in science and other spheres once seen to be the domain of men.

Mail Fumigation Chambers (Circa 1924) by National Archives of Australia, NAA: D3185, 22Public Record Office Victoria (State Archives of Victoria, Australia)

Mail Fumigation Chambers

The concept of fumigating mail is many hundreds of years old, originating when the process did not necessarily have a scientific basis, as there was no clear understanding of contagions. The fumigant was usually based on folklore: strong smelling compounds and solutions were thought to kill off the ‘miasma’ of illness. So from Boston to Venice, letters were exposed to boiling vinegar or perfume, tobacco smoke and even cyanide gas. In the last century or so, yellow fever and small pox have been the target of mail fumigation, the fumigant of choice being sulphur dioxide.

The letters in this image were being fumigated using Formalin, this being a mixture of formaldehyde and water. Once heated, the subsequent formaldehyde vapour would act as an industrial disinfectant targeting biological pathogens such as bacteria and fungi. Formalin was used, because while initially toxic, it breaks down over a few hours to become harmless. Mail treatment continues into the twenty-first century, with many countries using ionising or ultraviolet radiation on the mail as it passes through their major sorting hubs.

Ghost Town (Circa 1920) by PROV, VPRS 12800/P3, Unit 36, Item ADV 0359Public Record Office Victoria (State Archives of Victoria, Australia)

Ghost Town

During the lockdown, eerily quiet streets became a feature of our cities, reminiscent of scenes from a hundred years ago. In this image of Langridge Street in Abbotsford, it was undoubtedly the railway bridge that the government photographer was assigned to document, but whether by design or accident, a small boy on the road takes centre stage. Like a scene from a Western, there is a sense of calm before the storm, as he turns his head back towards a distant lone figure on the road behind him.

Bread (Circa 1950s) by PROV, VPRS 14517/P1, Unit 3, A0803Public Record Office Victoria (State Archives of Victoria, Australia)


The negatives in this series were accumulated by the Publications Unit of the Department of Education and Training. They depict schools, school students, teachers, maps, educational activities and other education-related subject matter. This photo was taken at the beginning of the era of mass-produced, pre-sliced, packaged bread in the 1950s. Before this families had either baked their own or had fresh bread delivered from their local baker. The convenience of packaged bread required food scientists to get involved in making loaves of bread that were fast-rising, long-lasting, and uniform.

During the recent pandemic lockdown, some of us regained enough hours in our day so that the creation of home-baked bread could again triumph over convenience. While our lifestyles full of commuting, working, and attending social activities had made packaged bread a necessity, reclaiming some of this time has allowed the expert home baker and beginner alike the opportunity to rediscover the joy of freshly baked bread. Like the scientist in this photo, home bakers experimented with their own techniques and ingredients to get their bread just right.

A Social Distance Please (2020) by Joseph Chow (AKA The Curious Shadows)Public Record Office Victoria (State Archives of Victoria, Australia)

A Social Distance Please, Melbourne, 2020

“The recommended distance for social distancing is 1.5 metres. Here, construction workers show a clear understanding, following guidelines during a briefing during the pandemic.” Joseph Chow (AKA The Curious Shadows), photographer. Instagram: @thecuriousshadows

Lady, Lockdown Stage 4 (2020) by Cathrin PlunkettPublic Record Office Victoria (State Archives of Victoria, Australia)

Lady, Lockdown Stage 4, Sunshine, 2020

“To me this lady expresses some of the heightened emotions of lockdown – confusion, surprise, disbelief and fear, felt by both young and old.” Cathrin Plunkett, photographer. Flickr: Cathrin Plunkett

Dawn – Anzac Day (2020) by Steph BoltPublic Record Office Victoria (State Archives of Victoria, Australia)

Dawn – Anzac Day, Rye, 2020

“With no public remembrance services allowed because of the coronavirus, I knew Anzac Day 2020 would be like no other. People gathered on the street to pay their respect at dawn.” Steph Bolt, photographer. Website: www.stephbolt.com/-photographs

We are in this Together (2020) by Andrea EspositoPublic Record Office Victoria (State Archives of Victoria, Australia)

We are in this Together, Melbourne, 2020

“June 2020. I was in my studio and heard the news on ABC radio that one of the biggest protests in Melbourne was to take place at Parliament House. My aim was not just to capture the usual placards with protesters, but also depict how life was for us at that moment, in the midst of a pandemic – images that we could refer to and reflect upon in the future. Within the unfolding events, I wanted to capture the essence of brotherhood and of caring for the safety of our communities.” Andrea Esposito, photographer. Instagram: @andrea_esposito_photo

Quiet Court (2020) by Mark ForbesPublic Record Office Victoria (State Archives of Victoria, Australia)

Quiet Court, Black Rock, 2020

“The image shows the basketball ring at my local park. Usually it is busy with parents and their children, however once the restrictions were enforced the park took on a whole new quieter demeanour. This image was taken early one morning on a foggy day, which to me symbolises the hibernation that Melbourne went into once lockdown commenced.” Mark Forbes, photographer. Website: www.markforbes.com.au

Katerina with a Saw (2020) by Ilana RosePublic Record Office Victoria (State Archives of Victoria, Australia)

Katerina with a Saw, Brunswick, 2020

“I was alarmed when I first spotted Katerina up a ladder with a saw in her hand on one of my daily walks. Despite her advanced age, she was determinately hacking away at some overhanging branches while balancing on the stepladder. ‘Should you be on that ladder?’ I called up to her, ‘It doesn't look safe!’ ‘Someone has to do it,’ she shot back immediately. ‘My son usually does it, but I haven't seen him for over 4 months.’ 

At the time we were in stage 4 lockdown. None of us could travel beyond 5 km, meaning Katerina’s son couldn’t visit, or help her tame the garden. The lockdown is now over and I imagine Katerina is happy to be able to see her son again. But it’s worth mentioning when I walked past her house a few days after we met, I noticed her branches were cut back; something Katerina had been able to achieve in isolation.” Ilana Rose, photographer. Website: www.ilanarose.com.au

Street Concert 1 (2020) by Christopher HopkinsPublic Record Office Victoria (State Archives of Victoria, Australia)

Street Concert 1, Brunswick, 2020

“31 March 2020, 17:41 pm. Former Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Cellist, Josephine Vains plays a social distancing ‘concert’ for her neighbourhood. Like many artists hit hard by the lockdown, Josephine had to be creative in order to continue performing, so began to play impromptu concerts on the pavement outside her house in Brunswick. As Josie’s neighbours received notifications via WhatsApp, they would enjoy the beauty of music and escape the anxiety caused by the lockdown, whilst socially distancing for 30 minutes. 

Throughout 2020, random acts of kindness and togetherness arose within the community. As the unemployment rate rose and Australia entered a recession, community spirit, and acts such as Josie’s, proved to be vitally important for society’s psychological well-being. This image is a perfect visual representation of how music’s healing properties remain despite its exponents being severely affected by the global pandemic.” Christopher Hopkins, photojournalist. Website: www.chris-hopkins.com.au

Together Again Soon (2020) by Julie MillowickPublic Record Office Victoria (State Archives of Victoria, Australia)

Together Again Soon, Castlemaine, 2020

“Artist Peter Drew created a poster specifically for the lockdown and offered it free of charge. Over 400 people across Australia (plus several overseas) asked for and received the poster together with instructions on how to make the glue. In Castlemaine it was also pasted up with his other images about what it is to be Australian, reminding us that we were ALL in this together.” Julie Millowick, photographer. Website: www.juliemillowick.com

Social Distancing (2020) by Bruce FurmedgePublic Record Office Victoria (State Archives of Victoria, Australia)

Social Distancing, Brighton, 2020

“Gloomy Melbourne winter with social distancing within a 5 km radius.” Bruce Furmedge, photographer. Instagram: @_brucefurmedge

The Force Move to Distance (2020) by Michael CurriePublic Record Office Victoria (State Archives of Victoria, Australia)

The Force Move to Distance, East Melbourne, 2020

“The ‘new normal’ was challenged by protesters fighting the lockdown. The police and the government came down hard on these groups. On this Saturday in September, 30-odd riot police and more turned up to Fitzroy Gardens to deal with a handful of protesters. On mass they moved into a public green space that was restricted to local residents at the time. It was strange to see these heavily armoured cops in masks amongst the trees and the people walking in the park for their allowed hour.” Michael Currie, photographer and photojournalist. Website: www.michael-currie.com.au

It’s all so Surreal (2020) by Chris KellyPublic Record Office Victoria (State Archives of Victoria, Australia)

It’s all so Surreal, Flemington, 2020

“Deep cleanse on a playground as we adapt to the pandemic.” Chris Kelly, photographer. Instagram: @chriskellyphoto

Credits: Story

Curators: Natasha Cantwell, Samantha Courtier, Charlie Farrugia, Sebastian Gurciullo, Kevin Hoey and Andrew Joyce.

The exhibition features images from both PROV and NAA collections and was produced by the Victorian Archives Centre Gallery team: Natasha Cantwell, Samantha Courtier, Charlie Farrugia, Sebastian Gurciullo, Kevin Hoey, Meg Jenkins, Andrew Joyce, Heather Ogilvie, David Taylor and Rebecca Young.

To find out any details about the photographs shown within the online exhibition, please contact media@prov.vic.gov.au

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Explore more
Related theme
A Brief History of Vaccination
Centuries of life-saving science summed up
View theme
Google apps