The skimpy barmaids of Kalgoorlie feature in a new photo exhibition

A photographer has shed some light on Kalgoorlie-Boulder’s famous skimpy barmaids as she documented pub nightlife in the historic gold mining town in a new exhibition that took 18 months in the making.

Known as Mellen, a pseudonym of her real name, the Sydney-born photographer shares her anonymity with miners who usually work under a pseudonym.

The scantily clad barmaids burst onto the Kalgoorlie-Boulder pub scene in the 1970s and have been part of the hard-working, hard-drinking culture of mining towns across Western Australia ever since.

While one pub in Kalgoorlie briefly flirted with the concept of male skimpies, or so-called himpies, in 2018, the job was overwhelmingly the domain of young women, working on a fly-in, fly-out basis.

Most wear lingerie or bikinis and sometimes go topless, but all skimpies pour beers and chat with patrons to keep the amber liquid flowing.

As Mellen explains, the idea for her skimpy show was born when she was hired as the resident photographer for Kalgoorlie’s aptly named Gold Bar nightclub, where she befriended many of the skimpy barmaids.

“It just gave me license to photograph the girls at work…with their consent, of course,” she says.

“Then I started going to some of the other venues as I started getting to know the girls, following them and taking their photos… I hadn’t seen many pictures of them.

“It’s behind closed doors and yet so well known about Kalgoorlie that I thought why not meet some of the girls and see if they would be interested in being portrayed?”

Photographer Mellen set out to tell the stories of some of Kalgoorlie-Boulder’s skimpy barmaids.(Scope of delivery: Mellen)

More than the money

Her photographic work has garnered her hundreds of followers on Instagram, where her name @nophotosofthegirls echoes the signs that usually hang behind the bar of any pub with squires on duty.

More than a dozen skimpies gave their permission to be included in the photo exhibit, underscoring the trust Mellen has built over more than a year.

Each image in the exhibit has a QR code that links to interviews she recorded with the Skimpies that describe some of her personal experiences at work.

“There are many different stories about how women got into this profession,” says Mellen.

“The common themes were the camaraderie between the women and of course the money, but there are a lot of jobs that make a lot of money so there has to be more, especially these days.

“Maybe in the 70’s when women weren’t allowed to work in the mines, but nowadays there are so many other elements – confidence was another common trait.”

Authentic depiction of Skimpies

The exhibition is a mixture of documentary photography and portraiture.

Mellen says she doesn’t want to portray the industry in a glamorous way, but wants to be as authentic as possible.

“I try to find a balance between what’s real, not too glamorous, but also a beautiful portrait,” she says.

A woman in cutoff jeans holds a dog against a white background.
Photographer Mellen says she aims to tell the women’s stories as authentically as possible.(Scope of delivery: Mellen)

“I love the one-on-one interaction when shooting a formal portrait, but to be able to capture what’s going on is also a pretty amazing privilege.”

The project also piqued Mellen’s interest in the history of Skimpies in a town that was home to Australia’s largest gold rush in 1893.

“I was looking at the story while doing the project just to try and deepen my understanding a bit so I could present it in a well-rounded way,” she says.

“I’m from Sydney and we don’t have squires over there so it was a little unusual that so many venues here have squire barmaids.

“I lived here for a year before stepping foot in a pub… we have rough pubs in Sydney but I couldn’t find them [skimpies] annoying at all.”

The exhibition at Black Crow Studios in Kalgoorlie is open until August 14th.

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