A photographer has shed some light on Kalgoorlie-Boulder’s famously scrappy barmaids in a new exhibition, 18 months in the making as she documented nightlife in bars in the historic gold mining town.
Known as Mellen, a pseudonym of her real name, the photographer originally from Sydney shares her anonymity in common with skimmers who typically work under an alias.
The scantily clad barmaids arrived on Kalgoorlie-Boulder’s bar scene in the 1970s and have since become part of the hard-working, hard-drinking culture of mining towns across Western Australia.
While one Kalgoorlie bar briefly flirted with the concept of male skimpies, or so-called himpies in 2018, the job was mainly the domain of young women working on a fly-in fly-out basis.
Most wear underwear or bikinis and sometimes go topless, but all the skimpies drink beer and chat with customers to get the amber liquid flowing.
As Mellen explains, the idea for her skimpy exhibition was born when she was hired as the house photographer for Kalgoorlie’s aptly named Gold Bar nightclub where she befriended many of the skinny bar girls.
“It just gave me a license to photograph the girls working…with their permission of course,” she says.
“Then I started going to some of the other places as I got to know the girls, following them around and taking their pictures…I didn’t see a lot of pictures of them around.
“It’s behind closed doors, yet such a widely known thing about Kalgoorlie that I thought, why not meet some of the girls and see if they’d be interested in having their portraits taken?”
More than the money
Her photography work has garnered her hundreds of followers on Instagram, where her handle @nophotosofthegirls reflects the signs that typically hang behind the bar of every bar with skits on duty.
More than a dozen skimpies have given their consent to be included in the photographic exhibition, 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 detailing some of their personal experiences on the job.
“There are many different stories about how the 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 where you can make a lot of money, so it has to be more than that, especially these days.
“Maybe in the 70s when women weren’t allowed to work in the mines, but these days there are so many other elements – the confidence was still a common trait.”
Authentic portrayal of skimpies
The exhibition is a mix of documentary photography and portraits.
Mellen says she did not want to portray the industry as glamorous, but as authentic as possible.
“I try to find a balance of what is real, not too glam, but also a nice portrait,” she says.
“I love the one-on-one interaction of taking a formal portrait, but being able to capture what’s going on is also a pretty amazing privilege.”
The project also sparked Mellen’s interest in the history surrounding skirmishes in a city that was home to Australia’s biggest gold rush in 1893.
“I looked at the history while I was doing the project, just to try to get a little more depth of my understanding so I could present it in a well-rounded way,” she says.
“I’m from Sydney and we don’t have skimpies there, so it was just something that stood out a little unusual for so many venues to have skimpy barmaids here.
“I lived here a year before I set foot in a bar… we have rough bars in Sydney but I didn’t find it [skimpies] shocking at all.”
The exhibition at Kalgoorlie’s Black Crow Studios is open until August 14.