Times a-changin' caught on camera
The 1970s heralded the opening of Australia's first gallery of photography.
IN 1972, Australia was a heady place: it was a time of social and political upheaval, of experimentation and transgression, and of newly won freedoms.
Women's liberation was on the rise, Germaine Greer's bawdy battle cry to women, The Female Eunuch, was a best-seller, Gough Whitlam was heading for The Lodge, and a new taboo-busting series called No. 96 started on television giving the country its first TV sex symbol in the riotously curvy Abigail. The country's libido had yet to be diverted into "food porn" - "soft porn", rather, was flavour du jour.
In keeping with the zeitgeist, the maverick ad-man and photographer Rennie Ellis launched Australia's first dedicated photography gallery, Brummels, in Toorak Road, with a wilfully attention-seeking show.
Called Two Views of Erotica, it featured the photographs of a rising young star, Carol Jerrems, 23, and an older, established photographer, Henry Talbot, 52, whose nudes were decidedly weird and psychedelic.
Ellis, who is best known for his candid photos of celebrities, rock stars and politicians, died in 2003, aged 63, but his cousin Robert Ashton, also a photographer, vividly recalls the renegade spirit on which Brummels was founded.
"Rennie definitely thought about that first show,'' he said. ''He chose Jerrems and Talbot on purpose. He chose them because he was strongly interested in the nude and sexuality, but he also wanted to stir up a bit of trouble.''
And did it stir up trouble? "Not as much as it would have now," says Ashton, who laments the conservatism that has since swept the country. It's hard to believe that Australia's first gallery dedicated to showing photography was set up as late as 1972 - but Ellis was ahead of the pack.
Photography was slowly beginning to be accepted as a legitimate art form: the National Gallery of Victoria established its department of art photography in 1972, with a staff of one, curator Jennie Boddington.
Two years later, the Art Gallery of NSW established a department of photography, specialising in Australian photography, and in 1977 the Art Gallery of South Australia followed suit.
"The '70s was the whole explosion of not just 'tune in and drop out', but do your own thing and follow your own dreams,'' says Ashton. ''Everyone was free to explore their own personal trip, and the camera was a pretty good instrument for carrying with you and doing that. All of a sudden photography had this resurgence as a valid art form.''
Brummels was artist-run, not-for-profit, and, as Ashton recalls, "everything was done with no money".
The gallery was located above the Brummels Hungarian-style restaurant at 95 Toorak Road (where the old Brummels sign is still visible) and opening nights were bacchanalian affairs, permeated by the smell of smoke and schnitzel wafting up the stairs.
"It was definitely a meeting and gathering space, as well as an exhibition space,'' says Ashton. ''I remember the nights when the windows would be open and people would be out on the roof, drinking wine, smoking joints, and just going for it.''
Photographer and filmmaker Paul Cox, who officially opened the gallery on December 14, 1972, will also preside over the opening of the Brummels exhibition at the Monash Gallery of Art on Saturday.
The exhibition will feature works shown at Brummels during its eight years of existence, including by Ashton, Jerrems, Talbot, George Gittoes, David Moore, Godwin Bradbeer, and even an Age senior writer, Geoff Strong, whose beach and travel photographs document the laid-back, let-it-all-hang-out atmosphere of the times.
But while Ellis had a penchant for the nude and the sexual, his tastes were broad, says photographer Ponch Hawkes, whose career was given a significant boost by her association with Brummels.
"What I enjoyed about Rennie was the breadth of his interest, the fact that he wanted me to show there,'' she says.
''I came over in my overalls and cropped haircut, and the work I was showing was very different to the work of other people, and it was work of a feminist nature, but he was really inclusive.''
In 1978, Brummels exhibited Hawkes's series Our mums and us, which was snapped up by the NGV. Straightforward photos of mothers and daughters in domestic settings, the series has a quiet strength. Amid the noise of the women's movement, Hawkes wanted, quite simply, to celebrate mothers and say "our mothers are women, too".
Ashton's 1974 series about Fitzroy will also be shown at the Monash exhibition. It documents the suburb pre-gentrification, when pubs such as the Rob Roy and the Champion, in Gertrude Street, were "bloodhouses", frequented by criminals, the working class and local indigenous people.
"You took your life in your own hands going into them," Ashton says.
But into the Champion he went. ''I met up with a few local blackfellas who escorted me in there - that's how I was able to do this," Ashton says, referring to his photo of a fierce-looking cowboy.
"This bloke said, if you take another photo I'll break this pool cue over your head."
Brummels: Australia's first gallery of photography, at Monash Gallery of Art, 860 Ferntree Gully Road, Wheelers Hill, from Saturday until January 22, 2012.