The Weekend Australian Magazine by Ross Bilton

Heart of the Nation

19-20 May 2018
The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there,” wrote the novelist LP Hartley. Looking at this photo from the Rennie Ellis Archive, you might be inclined to agree. From the uniform of shorts and thongs to the shaggy hair, the ciggies and the bored dog, it’s a snapshot of Australian pub culture that’s at once familiar and foreign, made remote by the passage of time.

The location is certain – it’s the Airlie Beach Hotel – but those pictured can’t agree on a date. “1978 or 1979,” says Tarz Norton, left of centre, sipping a rum and Coke as he coolly weathers the taunts of a bare-chested provocateur. “De nitely 1982,” says Syd Anderson, standing at the bar, bottle in hand. Why de nitely? “Because that fella I’m talking to, Ian McPherson, was a blow-in from Canada who didn’t stay long – and he took my girlfriend back to Vancouver with him when he left in late ’82.” Ouch.

One can imagine Ellis – the late, great social documentary photographer – discreetly raising his camera from a corner table to snap the brewing blue. “That bare-chested bloke, can’t remember his name, he was always annoying me,” says Norton, who worked as a labourer. “But I’d been in trouble at the pub before, and one more incident and I’d be barred. So I was just biding me time...” That’s Norton’s dog, Jack, on the oor. “He was a bull terrier/whippet/dingo cross, and part of the furniture in the bar. A great dog,” he recalls fondly. Anderson sees that differently, too. “Crazy little dog. Mental,” he says.

So, what are they up to now? Anderson, 66, still lives in Airlie (“I came up here from Brisbane on a shing trip 40 years ago and never went back,” he laughs) and is spending his retirement contentedly tinkering with boats. And Norton is living in northern NSW, where he works in road maintenance; he’s 63 now, with bung knees and bung shoulders, a cancer survivor. Is he happy though? “Shit yeah mate,” he growls down the phone, pub noises in the background. “I’ve got a beautiful daughter, two grandkids, good mates. Life is great.”


Sydney Morning Herald by Lindy Percival

Fourteen years after his death, a dream comes true for 'scallywag' Rennie Ellis

More than half a million photographs by the larger-than-life Melbourne photographer will now be preserved for generations to come.

14 August 2017
Picture this. An AFL footballer sits on the hallowed turf of the MCG, a cigarette dangling from his lips. A young man perches on the rear drop-down door of a battered station wagon as it makes its way along one of Melbourne's busiest thoroughfares. Two bleary-eyed mothers offer cigarettes to their golden-haired children, evidently unperturbed by the camera in their midst ...

To venture into the archive of photographer Rennie Ellis is to enter another world. There we were, just 30 or 40 years ago, a nation of sun-worshipping, free-wheeling, uninhibited individualists. What happened to all that bold-as-brass brio?

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The Age, article by Penny Webb

Mirror on a society reinventing itself

28 August 2013

Rennie Ellis compulsively documented Australian social life for 40 years. The State Library of Victoria holds almost a half a million of his photographs.

When Ellis died in 2003, aged 62, he left a mock-up of a long-planned book subtitled "An experience of the seventies in Australia". Decade: 1970-1980, as it is called, has at last been published, by Hardie Grant Books.

In an introductory essay, filmmaker Paul Cox recalls that, "Many of us found our voices in the seventies. The atmosphere was kind, non-commercial and forgiving."

A writer turned photographer, Ellis seems to have grasped the opportunities of that pivotal decade with both hands, even setting up the first photographic gallery in Australia above a restaurant in South Yarra in '72.

Everything you need to know about the '70s is in his images. Although just 12 of the more than 250 in the book are on display here (hand-printed by CPL Digital in South Melbourne), they include two beauties: Fitzroy Extrovert and Dino Ferrari, Toorak Road.

The caption on the latter is a statement of journalistic intent: "Sitting in Barola Bistro, South Yarra. Attention taken by the exit of an unsubtle lady. Intuition encourages me to follow her. She engages the Dino Ferrari. The wind blows. Snap!"

Ellis was following the dictum of Henri Cartier-Bresson, responding to what the French master of photo-journalism called "the decisive moment".

Memorable images of nightlife include a Kings Cross strip-club spruiker whose broodiness is straight out of a Caravaggio oil painting. See, in contrast, a scene that might have been drawn by Eric Thake in the 1950s, of men in felt hats drinking schooners of beer in a public bar - old Australia in the cold light of day.

The evidence here is of a society reinventing itself, trying anything, on a shoestring. Turn the page, move down the gallery, and Sharpies square up to Ellis' lens in the braces, boots and cloth caps of English bovver boys.

This display juxtaposes the leggy lady leaning into the Dino Ferrari sports car with Fitzroy Extrovert - a yobbo in a singlet leaning from the waist out of the window of the back seat of a Valiant, fag in his outstretched hand, drinking from a longneck, darkly handsome with aquiline nose and strong jaw.

These two images are replete with signifiers of class and privilege, of sexual transaction and gender display, and of a monstrous hybridity: half-woman, half-car in the one; and half-man, half-car in the other.

I am transfixed by another image, that of two slim-hipped girls immortalised in Mates, Prahran, arms draped around each others' shoulders, standing in a run-down backyard with its clothes line and thunder box.

Despite the swagger and air of menace of the girl on the left, this is one of the more static images here and, because of that, we feel the presence of the photographer and a perhaps unspoken agreement to keep his distance.

In the unforgettable underwater image My Son Josh Learns to Swim, the infant seemingly blissfully floats upwards while a concerned adult flails towards him and an enraptured older boy appears to shepherd by virtue of his gaze and a withheld embrace the infant's blessed rise.

It pictures complete confidence and agonising doubt. And that dichotomy is typical: Ellis gives us the best and worst of a situation in a single image.

Exhibition runs until 30 August at Mossgreen Gallery, 310 Toorak Road, South Yarra

Broadsheet: Review by Emily Bour

Mossgreen Gallery gives a fresh vantage on a series of images by the late photographer Rennie Ellis, renowned for his candid deptiction of Australian life

8 February 2012

This is the Show affirms the title for the upcoming exhibition opening at Mossgreen Gallery this Friday. Drawing on more than 40 years worth of work from the Rennie Ellis photographic archive, the images on show centre around personal identity and that age-old subject of the elusive beauty of the female form.

Ellis points his lens to various activities of the night. We peer inside Midnight Cabaret Shows in Sydney’s King’s Cross, along with other establishments such as the Ritz in St Kilda, the infamous Maxine's, even into the recesses of New York's streets. There is a definite element of sensuality to these often dark and atmospheric images, but an equally vivid rendering of the fantasy offered by entertainment. They flicker between an animalistic desire for the female form, and a perspective that is also, quite simply, admiring.

Flashing men also feature in Ellis's collection of images, though less extensively. Girls Night Out (1980), taken in Prahran, observes women demonstrating their voyeuristic tendencies as they throw all good manners out of the window. In other places, we are afforded a rare look backstage as Ellis hands us our private pass beyond the careful construct of the stage and the show. In Carlotta & Electra (1970-71) and Backstage Dressing Room (1977) we are allowed to gaze happily into the change rooms of erotic dancers. They smile back, welcoming our presence. But it is My Bare Lady (1977) – the only colour photograph in the series – that truly transcends mere documentation, offering a painterly elegance reminiscent of masters such as Degas.

In the same way that light enters a lens and imprints itself onto the film within the camera, Ellis's vision trickles into the pot of collective memory. These images become more potent with a longer exposure.

This is the Show by Rennie Ellis runs from February 11 to March 3 at Mossgreen Gallery.


The Age, article by Janice Breen Burns

Topless Turvy Times of Rennie Ellis

10 February 2012

He could charm a girl's clothes off but three women who loved maverick Melbourne photographer Rennie Ellis say he was far from a sleaze.

''He could walk into a room and it was just whoosh - off would come the tops!'' fashion designer and friend of Ellis, Jenny Bannister, hoots with laughter recalling those ''hedonistic times'' of the 1970s, '80s and '90s.

''They'd undo the jacket, roll the boob tube down. It was a game to shock, to get their picture taken.

''It was just the way it was. We ran wild, everybody dressed up, had wild parties, there was cross-dressing and nudity and bonking behind the curtains. It wasn't naughty or vulgar, it was just freedom.''

At South Yarra's Mossgreen Gallery, Bannister is noisily reminiscing as Ellis' wife, artist Kerry Oldfield Ellis, and long-time friend and assistant Manuela Furci, fuss and swap 22 framed photographs of naked and topless women at parties, fashion shows, strip clubs and even a ''businessmen's'' lunch, into a satisfying pattern, ready for hanging.

Their T.I.T.S: Rennie Ellis exhibition opens tonight and, yep, its key subject matter is in the title. Furci says she borrowed the anagram, This Is The Show, from St Kilda strip joint, The Ritz.

The club used it to get around local bylaws in the 1970s that prohibited promotion of the raison d'etre of its long-running My Bare Lady cabaret show.

''It's not meant to stereotype Rennie as a 'tits person','' Furci says. ''He was a social documentor; people exposing themselves was just part of that.''

She points out two of the exhibition's 22 photographs are of naked men being ogled by women, so the genders are kind of even.

But it is Ellis' images of women - the owners of the tits - that are most evocative. One, a soft-focus photograph taken backstage at The Ritz in 1977 shows three topless women apparently oblivious to Ellis' camera; one brushing her hair, two chatting. They wear a few feathers and G-string spangles as nonchalantly as a flannel nightie.

''The beauty of Rennie's work can be seen in the ease of these women,'' says Oldfield Ellis. ''They feel comfortable with him there. There's no threat or worry about predatory behaviour. Rennie was fascinated by subcultures and was completely non-judgmental about them. And that radiated from him.''

Absent from Ellis' works are the pouty-mouthed, lash-batting, ''come hither'' poses usually associated with images of naked women. Furci says that's precisely because Ellis was such a fastidious social observer.

''He thought it was more important to document the sentiment of the day,'' she says.

In some images, his camera calmly observes the effect of a woman's nakedness on men. One is a particularly unnerving document of life in the 1970s: a topless young girl is laid out like meat on a low table, ringed by men in business suits who look down on her impassively.

''That was a 'businessmen's lunch' that used to happen at Albert Lake's Powerhouse every spring,'' Furci says.

Other photographs show men and women watching girls as they dance naked at a charity lunch or prance along the raised catwalk at a fashion show.

This is the second exhibition since Ellis' death in 2003 and is drawn from his extraordinary legacy of almost a million images documenting life in the 1970s, '80s and '90s.

A large part of the archive is being acquired and digitised by the State Library of Victoria.

Furci is its official archivist and in 2009 curated 200 images for the National Gallery of Victoria's Rennie Ellis: No Sanding, Only Dancing exhibition that lured 195,000 fascinated visitors.

''People came back two and three times,'' Furci recalls.

''His photographs can't be skimmed; you've just got to look into them.''

This Is The Show: Rennie Ellis runs until March 3 at Mossgreen Gallery, 310 Toorak Road, South Yarra

The Age

Times a-changin' caught on camera

20 October 2011

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.

The Age

Brummels Exhibition at Monash Gallery of Art

19 October 2011

In 1972, maverick ad-man and photographer Rennie Ellis launched Australia’s first dedicated photography gallery, Brummels, on Toorak Road. Some of the works that were shown at Brummels during its eight years of existence, including by Ashton, Jerrems, Talbot, George Gittoes, David Moore, Godwin Bradbeer, and even The Age’s senior writer Geoff Strong, whose beach and travel photographs document the laid-back, let-it-all-hang-out atmosphere of the times, will be on show this weekend at The Brummels exhibition at the Monash Gallery of Art.

Click here to see an image slideshow

Robert McFarlane, Oz Photo Review

'Brummels Lives! Planetary news, digital silver printing, McCullin's words and Fujifilm's X10

18 October 2011

The Spirit of Brummels - and Rennie Ellis - endures.

Monash Gallery of Art are mounting a survey of the content and enduring influence of Brummels photography gallery (arguably Australia's first - the Australian Centre for Photography would open a year later, in 1973).

Brummels paved the way for the current wave of excellent commercial exhibiting spaces throughout Australia now showing photography as fine-art. The late Rennie Ellis (1940-2003), that compulsive diarist and charismatic observer of the Australian way of life, foresaw photography's coming prominence as a dynamic art form and founded Brummels, sited above a restaurant of the same name, in Toorak Road, South Yarra, Melbourne in 1972.

Ellis maintained that photography had long been neglected in Australia as a form of artistic expression and Brummels would, he said "continue a trend that is widely accepted in London, New York, San Francisco and Amsterdam where photography galleries had been popular for several years." Brummels, under Ellis and Assistant Director, fellow photographer Robert Ashton, quickly became a social arena in which many now legendary Australian photographers showed their work for the first time. The late Carol Jerrems appears at her exhibition at Brummels in 1975 (in a photograph taken by Ellis) as a stylish, confident young woman wearing a loosely tied blouse, black leather boots, frayed denim shorts - caught returning the photographer's gaze with her characteristic aura of opacity and charm.

Indeed Ellis's observations of Brummels at MGA capture the gallery's Seventies social ambience and suggest strongly  their exhibiting photographers took their work seriously, but not themselves. Ellis's eye for the bizarre captures three very diverse photographers - Jerrems, the late Athol Shmith and Rob Imhoff (wearing a set of clearly faux front teeth) locked in an awkward embrace at the gallery.

Brummels Gallery was eventually compelled to seek sponsorship from Pentax, becoming the Pentax Brummels Gallery before finally closing its doors in 1980. If you want to see ample visual evidence of a new wave of Australian photography that then included artists such as Jon Rhodes, Wesley Stacey, Sue Ford, George Gittoes, Ponch Hawkes, Ian Dodd with seminal works by other established figures such as David Moore (his "Landscape Nude 1" is pictured, above, left) and Henry Talbot, the comfortable drive to Monash Gallery of Art at Wheeler's Hill is a must. In an appropriate coincidence, noted film-maker and photographer  Paul Cox (who opened Brummels first show in 1972) will also open the MGA exhibition on October 22.  

Click here to visit Oz Photo Review

Dino Ferrari, Toorak Rd 1976

Rennie Ellis: No Standing Only Dancing

26 November 2008

Reviewed by Robert McFarlane

Decent exposures from a gentle chronicler of society's excesses.
FOR much of his life Rennie Ellis (1940-2003) was seen as a court jester with a camera - turning up at the social arenas of the rich, famous and unknown in Melbourne and Sydney.

For 30 years he documented the excesses of his era, with public nudity unapologetically a favourite subject. But somehow such exposure seemed absurd, ironic and even poetic when Ellis discovered a seemingly hapless subject nude - in public.

His was a gently satiric eye and, walking along the carefully sequenced pictures at Ellis's retrospective at the National Gallery of Victoria, you may wonder, in this post-Henson era, what all the fuss about nudity is about. And how much Australia has changed in 30 years.

One particular picture is telling. Ellis photographed a section of the crowd at a Calder Park pop festival in 1977. Most are women and oblivious to Ellis. Even the confident young woman clearly the focus of his attention remains dreamily absorbed by the event. Wearing only a crucifix, a necklace of silver stars and a leather bondage collar, the topless woman is barely given a glance by her fellow revellers.

Ellis also recorded the culture of sport in an era when money and huge audiences did not confer unwanted responsibilities as role models on athletes. With concise composition and wry humour, he photographed the prelude to the 1974 Australian rules grand final as Richmond hard man Robert McGhie sits on the MCG boundary, adjusting his shoes while dragging on a freshly lit cigarette.

I never had the chance to ask Ellis whether he regarded himself as a photojournalist. I suspect he would have shied away from anything that labelled his photography. One thing is clear: the gentle persistence of his vision still enriches us today.

There is another revealing picture in the catalogue that accompanies the show. Bob Bourne's 1974 portrait catches a joyful Ellis, all long flowing hair and moustache, raising his battered black Pentax SLR. The lightness with which he holds his camera is palpable.

Ellis would transfer that delicate touch to almost every photograph - from a young woman revealing almost all as she propels herself downwards into a Ferrari in Toorak in 1976 - to an impossibly well groomed Andrew Peacock lunching with his then wife Susan in 1969.

Ellis may not have considered himself a photojournalist but his extensive archive offers intimate access to an Australia tantalisingly now just out of reach.

Sydney Morning Herald

Pinhole revisited opens fresh windows on world

2 May 2006

The camera is primitive, but the results sparkle, writes Robert McFarlane.

JUST when other photographers are deserting film for the instant delights of digital photography, Anthony Browell has reverted to a pinhole camera fashioned from plywood, copper and brass.

Browell's primitive creation uses a tiny aperture in the front of the camera to allow a faint amount of light to travel from the subject to the surface of the film, or light-sensitive paper. It's a slow process that requires long exposures of several minutes (made by simply removing and replacing a brass cap). The results, however - as seen in Point Light Gallery - are both subtle and spectacular.

This is photography completely uncommitted to the moment. Through the use of exposures that take minutes, Browell's subjects - portraits, nudes and landscapes - are suspended into timeless attitudes. A female nude on a deserted beach becomes, during the several minutes of exposure required, almost translucent as glittering highlights from the shoreline appear to shine through the woman's limbs.

The portraits, however, are the biggest surprise. Browell achieves extraordinarily fine detail with his pinhole camera. (The size of the aperture is crucial - too small a hole can result in diffuse images, too large affects focus.) Each print also radiates a soft, full black and white tonality.

Browell's image of photographer David Potts sitting in front of a light-dappled wall, shot this year, is a fine rendering of this impassive pioneer of Australian photojournalism. Children, one imagines, would be difficult to photograph during the long exposures demanded by pinhole cameras, but Browell's image of his grandson Harry, peering from the window of a rustic shed, has a haunting vulnerability.

During a long career as one of Australia's most accomplished editorial photographers, Browell claims to have worked with almost every kind of camera. "The pinhole camera," he says, "has revived my interest and curiosity in photography. You don't so much as take photographs but divine your subject. Because there is no viewfinder you have to imagine someone (within the frame).

"I set the camera straight and try and get the head in the middle of the frame, otherwise it distorts. I sometimes also ask the subject to look through the camera towards infinity. You [then] have to let it happen and it does. When you go into the darkroom and finally see [the picture] it is riveting. You couldn't get this result with an ordinary camera."

It is just possible that pinhole photography is a reaction against the sheer efficiency with which today's digital cameras capture fleeting moments of life. Browell's latest photographs are a timely reminder that, as the late David Moore once argued, photography should also address what he coined the soft spread of time.

On the evidence of Aussies All at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra, the late Rennie Ellis was almost omnipresent among the nation's good, bad and beautiful.

There is a strong diarist touch to many colour images - from Alan Bond in bed in luxurious surrounds, to a sprinkling of personalities at the Melbourne Cup and Weavers, an artless 1981 moment showing a middle-aged man having his hair brushed by a naked woman. Ellis also photographed an unclad Carol Jerrems during a tender, golden Degas moment in 1970.

Present in almost every picture is the emotional aftertaste Ellis left with his subjects - an inevitable smile at the ebullient photographer's affectionate presence or occasionally an uncharacteristic reserve, as in his fine 1970 portrait of artist Rex Battersby.

Looking at Ellis's photographs on show, it seems he enjoyed being jointly acknowledged as both photographer and a well-known Melbourne personality. When I finally discovered a photograph in which an Ellis subject is observed apparently undisturbed - like an impeccably groomed Andrew Peacock with then wife Susan in 1969 - its historical value soared for me.

There is also a sense that this selection of Ellis photographs is personality driven - from Elle Macpherson pictured in a lame promotion for the AFL to the inevitable gaggle of mini-celebrities at the Melbourne Cup. Perhaps there will be a future exhibition of photographs, possibly black and white only, showing the late Ellis in a deeper, more timeless light.

Part One is a quietly amusing selection of documentary photographs by Karl Sharp at Summer Hill's elegant Red Door Gallery. Sharp makes a virtue of gently satirising Australian life - from surreal sousaphone players at the Sydney Opera House in 1998, to a dark horse wandering into a men's toilet at the 1996 Royal Easter Show. Sharp's career to date has mainly consisted of photographing the humble cycles of daily life, mostly for state and federal libraries. Part One is a celebration of Sharp's respect for the anonymous human moment, without alteration or undue emphasis.


Australia to the world

1 May 2006

City News

Photographer with a reminiscent eye

27 April 2006