Photos of artist’s empty storefronts show how COVID lockdowns have devastated Melbourne’s retail sector


Like many Melburnians, Callum Morton made it through the COVID-19 lockdowns with little else to do outside his home other than explore the city on foot.

The art teacher started running near his own neighborhood in St Kilda, and as the ‘bubble’ he was allowed to run slowly stretched beyond the 5 kilometers imposed by the strictest rules of the city, he was struck by something.

He noticed that the city’s brick-and-mortar shopping streets were increasingly dotted with empty storefronts, more and more appearing with each lockdown.

Professor Morton began to stop and lean his phone against the glass of empty storefronts bearing a ‘for rent’ sign, photographing the scene inside in a bid to document the city in crisis.

He said, ironically, his experience of the city reduced to small bubbles allowed him to explore it in greater detail than before.

In some areas, like Richmond’s Bridge Road, he was surprised by the abruptness of the change.

Each scene is part of a “massive distress network”

By the time the last lockdown was lifted at the end of 2021, he had photographed 1,400 storefronts in communities including Sunshine, Dandenong, Fitzroy, Williamstown, Kensington and Moonee Ponds.

Callum Morton is Professor of Fine Art and Director of Monash Art Projects (MAP) at Monash University.(Provided: Anna Schwartz Gallery)

Professor Morton said that during the project he remained “painfully aware” of the real human stories behind each scene.

“There are obvious social and economic effects that represent the livelihoods of business owners and their employees, families, supply chains that depend on them, and landlords that depend on rent.

“You see this huge distress network, which we certainly haven’t recovered from.”

An empty storefront painted blue.
Prof Morton photographed 1,400 empty shop windows during Melbourne’s lockdowns.(Provided: Callum Morton)

A City of Melbourne survey released last month showed three-quarters of CBD businesses were under pressure due to the effects of the pandemic, with many business owners saying they were just surviving.

In recent days, density limit restrictions have been lifted in Victorian retail, and Melbourne Mayor Sally Capp has been pushing for a voucher scheme to entice people back into the CBD.

But Victoria Chamber of Commerce chief executive Paul Guerra said after more than two years the hospitality industry and specialty retail stores reliant on walk-in customers were still struggling.

“The sad reality is that for some businesses it’s too late to intervene because customer foot traffic isn’t coming back fast enough,” he said.

“Costs continue to rise and customers have yet to return.”

An empty storefront with yellow painted walls.
The photo collection was included in an exhibition at the Australian Center for Contemporary Art.(Provided: Callum Morton)

Professor Morton said he had long been interested in the challenges traditional high streets faced, which have been made worse under the pressure of closures.

“The bricks and mortar crisis has been going on for a long time, with department store, mall, big box stores and e-commerce all challenging retail, but it’s still the dominant form of retail “, did he declare.

“Losing stores in your local community, we’re kind of expecting that now.

“But when you see it en masse, you really feel the absence and you really feel the displacement in the public space and in the street.”

An empty showcase with a map on the wall.
Professor Morton took the photos by leaning his smartphone against the windows.(Provided: Callum Morton)

Some people “just couldn’t watch”

Pairing photography with running meant using a lightweight, portable smartphone camera, which made perfect sense.

“You press the phone against the glass and that dissolves the glass, so it looks like you’re inside the building,” Professor Morton said.

The images were uploaded to Instagram, which drew mixed reactions.

An empty storefront with a view through a door onto a staircase.
The artist took his last photograph during Melbourne’s last official lockdown in October 2021.(Provided: Cullum Morton)

Some people found the collection of images too confrontational.

“Some people… they just couldn’t keep themselves busy after a while,” Professor Morton said.

“It’s kind of like looking into oblivion or looking at the problem, a lot of people don’t want to do that – they’d rather be distracted in some way.

“Something is happening right in front of you and it’s kind of an existential crisis like climate change, but you’d rather watch something prettier than watch this stuff.”

A selection of photographs has also been included in an ongoing exhibition at the Australian Center for Contemporary Art in Melbourne, entitled Who’s Afraid of Public Space?.

An empty storefront with brick walls and a tiled centerpiece.
The pandemic has exacerbated the challenges traditional high streets were already facing.(Provided: Callum Morton)

Although the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have continued beyond Victoria’s official lockdowns in the form of a ‘ghost lockdown’ associated with Omicron, Professor Morton made the conscious decision to put his camera down during of the last lockdown in October 2021.

“It was a project for a particular moment in time that was framed on either side of the end and the start of the lockdown,” he said.

“I was relieved, in a way, that it was over.”

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