All images are copyright Lyndal Irons
We speak to Lyndal Irons about her photographic exhibition documenting the final days of Petersham’s iconic Oxford Tavern.
What was the motivation for this photographic series?
A lot my work is about disappearing local history or recording something fleeting. So initially, I wanted to shoot this simply because I thought it was an important place in the area and its closing would mark the end of an era. The Oxford Tavern had a reputation for being pretty rough and it wasn’t an incredibly inviting place from the outside. But in my experience there was another dimension to it. I wanted to make its legacy a bit more 3D, a little more rounded. And the more people I photographed and interviewed, the more it became apparent that there were amazing stories inside that would vanish too, alongside the business model.
The politics of professional topless women are complex and I shot this in 48 hours – the series was never meant to be a comment on the industry at large or even a long term study of the pub. That said, The Oxford didn’t have a cover charge, it didn’t mark up the drinks dramatically, and all the girls were paid in advance. It wasn’t a strip club where people were constantly hustling for tips. So often the men and women were able to form genuine friendships rather than have a purely financial transaction. The woman I spoke to felt that they could be themselves, and that they weren’t pressured into doing anything they weren’t comfortable with. The pub was under rated in that way, I think.
What was your own experience of the joint?
When I was a teenager my friend moved to Stanmore and her father told us, “Don’t go to the Oxford Tavern.” Later in life I lived just down the road and my friend was dancing there so I went to see her perform. The vibe wasn’t particularly upbeat but she was telling me how great it was because it provided a lot of work for dancers to practice and to supplement their income from other shows, and it was a nice place to perform.
I still didn’t totally get it then the next time I went when I was photographing a friend of mine. I was trying to learn how to shoot one person’s life in my early days of attempting photography. And he’s got this very regulated life in the area. He used to go to the Oxford to see a bargirl every Tuesday afternoon when she had her shift.
I went with him a couple of times, and that’s the first time I went with somebody just as a patron. Outside everything was dead, it was traffic and concrete, it seemed like there was nothing going on, then you go behind these black doors and there’s a mirror ball and purple gel lights and topless women and everything was just low key, it wasn’t even a big deal, it was just this best kept secret that was pretty fantastic.
Every few months I’d drop by when I could during the day but when I started shooting this it was the first time I started going at night. I still couldn’t kick the idea that night was probably the time when it earned its reputation.
What was it like shooting the closing days?
It was a lot of fun. As a photographer normally I like to get to know people a bit before I start shooting, but with it closing there was no time to earn trust and figure out where the story might go, who would be important to talk to. It was just whatever was in front of you, luck, and it was totally overstimulating because there was 17 showgirl performances on the first night and a pub filled to capacity. It was an excellent party – they had people queuing up down Crystal Street who couldn’t get in.
What surprised you about the night?
The gravity of the situation and how much the pub had meant to people: they had a big reunion of girls who had worked there over the years fly in from all over Australia to say goodbye because that’s where a lot of people got their start in dancing.
I guess you judge those venues by how happy the staff are. I think every staff member I met had a meaningful relationship with the place. They felt it was their own little community, a family for people who had maybe come from interstate or didn’t know many people around Sydney.
What do they make of the new Oxford Tavern?
While everyone was sad to see the old Oxford go and I haven’t heard of anyone who prefers the new version, there isn’t just one opinion. Some people still drink there. Some people are glad the new owners have retained a little of its history rather than bulldozing the whole thing. Others find it offensive that their history is being kept on as part of a very different product. They feel it is mocking them or capitalising on something they helped demolish by changing the nature of the pub.
For Nathan, the former licensee, his wish for the pub was that it not to be known as a seedy, dirty place. It was something that was hard to campaign against because he didn’t have a big budget, and it’s hard to shift perceptions. So in some ways he was happy to see the place opened up and to see people going inside. I hope that when people see my work, it is a bit like bringing more people inside the old version. It’s been really meaningful to have people say, ‘Oh, it’s not the way I thought it was.’ Or, ‘I really wish I had gone in.’
How do you feel about the passing of the old Oxford personally?
I loved the pub mix in Petersham. You’ve got the Petersham Bowling Club where the younger families gravitate. It hosts a lot of good live music. The Huntsbury is my local and it’s a good, classic Australian pub that isn’t gentrified. That is becoming hard to find these days. Then you’ve got the Livingstone that’s more of gambling den, but it’s great to have a late night pub that you can have a final drink at then walk home at the end of the night.
Then there was The Oxford. It was really unlike anything else around and I definitely feel its absence. The new version is unlike anything else in Petersham still but I think it was much more interesting to have a ‘titty bar’ in the mix than a Surry Hills style pub. It was more unique.
What reaction have you got from the staff about your exhibition?
I shot it but it’s their story, and it really matters to me how they receive it for obvious reasons. On the launch night we had heaps of people that were in the photographs: dancers, bar staff and patrons. I was leased to hear them say that I’d shot it like I was an insider even though I was an outsider. And someone said that I treated them like people, which seems too obvious, but they’ve had journalists or photographers who’d come in there saying, ‘Tell me a fucked up story.’ They already had their angle and staff didn’t feel they’d spent enough time thinking about what it was like from any other perspective. The fact that they recognise their story in what I’ve put together is the best thing for me.
You can see more of Lyndal’s work at her website lyndalirons.com.au. Goodbye Oxford Tavern is showing at The Fracking Redundants Art Gallery at 111A Crystal Street, Petersham, until March 20. Gallery hours are 10am-6pm Thursday to Sunday plus Wednesday March 19; other days by appointment (contact 9568 2980 or 0406 061 354).