A Great Man: Les Brener, 1930-2015

Last Friday, March 20, the Australian photographic community lost its greatest servant when LES BRENER, OAM, and recipient of both PMA’s Distinguished Service Award and The Gold Tripod Award from PICA (IDEA), died, aged 84. 

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Les Brener in 2010. (Pic: Stan Kessanis)

Les Brener was one of those rare individuals who navigate through life accruing only friends. I can’t recall him getting anyone off-side in the three decades I knew him. His charm and goodwill was infectious, and he used it to great effect in pulling together the disparate parts of the photographic community during his masterful tenure as executive director of PMA Australia. Because he exuded such unalloyed positivity, it was difficult, almost impossible, to say ‘no’ to Les.

In a companion to this obituary, we will feature tributes from people both here and overseas whose lives he made a difference to in various ways.

What follows here is a precis of the second half of his life, following his emigration from what was then known as Rhodesia. It’s extraordinary to realise that by the time he arrived here he was 47 years old, and had already had a full and successful life as a pharmacist and photo retailer in his homeland. What a huge difference he made to the Australian photographic industry in the relatively short time he worked among us.
– KS   

The early days
…Les Brener came to Australia in late 1978 from Zimbabwe (then called Rhodesia), seeking a new, more settled life. In Rhodesia he had run a successful pharmacy and photographic outlet in the capital city, Salisbury (now Harare). He was also a founder of the photo dealers group in his native country.

Shortly after his arrival in Australia, his immense knowledge of the photographic business attracted the attention of key industry people here.

His first role in Sydney early in 1979 was as Director of the Australian Photographic Industries Association, a body operating under the secretariat of the then Sydney Chamber of Commerce – now the State Chamber of Commerce. The association was formed to coordinate the activities of the retail and wholesale bodies supporting the industry. These were the PDA (Photographic Dealers Association) and PIC (Photographic Industry Council).

The Chamber also supplied secretarial services to the professional photographer’s association, the AIP (Australian Institute of Photograph,y now the AIPP – Australian Institute of Professional Photography) as well as PIMA (the Photographic Industrial Marketing Association), a body formed for the industrial equipment importers and retailers. This became PICA and more recently IDEA.

In 1979 he played the key role in organising a major dealer convention held in association with the SPPC 79′ Exhibition, (the third South Pacific Photographic Convention) which was held at the Sydney Hilton Hotel.)

At that Convention, Roy Pung, then executive director of Photo Marketing Association International, was invited by the PDA president Ken Peters to be a keynote speaker, and to hold discussions with the PDA executive committee. This resulted in the PDA affiliating with PMA and later establishing its own office away from the Chamber of Commerce.

A four-year period followed in which Les worked as a professional photographer and in retail and wholesale photography roles, before being invited in January 1984 to take over the Australian Division of the PMA by then president John Paxton, in consultation with Paul Curtis (PIMA) and Roy Pung.

PMA finds a leader
In the first year and a half, PMA operated out of an office in Les’ home. He almost immediately embarked upon an intense membership drive, both on the phone and travelling interstate and driving around with a street directory to potential members’ stores to recruit them. By the end of the first year of Les Brener’s administration, PMA had enlisted its’ 250th member. By August 1985 there were 350 members. It was probably during this period – and in subsequent interstate visits over the years – that Les earned the admiration, affection and friendship of so many of Australia’s photo retailers.

No-one before of since has had such a ready rapport with so many ‘rank and file’ members of the Australian photographic community. Les knew everyone – and more often than not the name of their spouses – and everyone in the industry felt they had the ear of the PMA executive director. And of course, the ranks of Australian PMA members swelled enormously through the ’80s and into the ’90s.

Early initiatives included sourcing a special insurance deals for PMA members via Guild Insurance, special low rates for credit cards, as well as a cheque verification service. These new services made PMA more appealing for retailers and helped increase membership.

Under Les’ administration, the newsletter Newsline Australia became a monthly publication and was sent out to all members. Les also worked assiduously in getting distributors on board as PMA associate members.

This helped immensely in establishing an environment in which retailers and wholesalers in Australia worked hand in glove over many years. It’s a legacy which continued for years after his retirement from the PMA executive directors’ role.

Bringing us together
One of his key moves to build dealer-to-dealer and wholesaler-to-dealer relationships was to initiate regular ‘PMA Sundowner’ get-togethers in every state in Australia. These brought together retailers and wholesalers in a relaxed, informal setting. This feature of industry life during his tenure proved very valuable for information sharing between dealers, and indeed, throughout the whole industry.

Relationships with PICA and PMA were extremely cordial and together with the professional photographers, bi-annual Conventions and Trade Exhibitions were held in either Melbourne or Sydney. Annual events and the inclusion of Brisbane came at a later stage.

Annual industry events commenced from 1993, with major equipment shows being run by Paul Curtis at PICA, and the PMA conventions organised by Les Brener and his small team, with input from the PMA Board. The success of the conventions was in part down to Les Brener’s ability to attract considerable sponsorship from the larger wholesalers, which in turn provided the wherewithal for ‘star’ keynote speakers. During the 1990s, 400 to 500, perhaps more, would attend the three-day PMA conventions.

Another Les Brener initiative during his time at PMA was to establish the (Terry Rimmer conceived) ‘Young Achievers’ program with younger employees from each state contesting for the title of Young Achiever of the Year, which required nomination by their employer and being ‘put through their paces’ by an assessment panel. This was later adopted by PMA in some other countries.

Les retired from the PMA executive director’s role in 2003, at which stage he was well past the official retirement age, but had lost little of the enthusiasm and love of the role he had made his own.

It’s a cliche that life can be cruel, and so it was to Les in his latter years. Unsuccessful recovery from a series of knee and back operations at first restricted his movement and eventually left him wheelchair bound, denying him the opportunity to live his retirement years to the fullest.

When asked how he was faring, his standard response was, ‘From the neck up, I’m terrific, thank you.’

He never complained, and always made the most of his situation. He maintained his interest in all things photographic. He was a keen photography gallery supporter and a former director of the Australian Centre for Photography. He had a great appreciation and knowledge of the works of the great photographers down the ages. He was also interested in historical aspects of the industry and the evolution of camera design.

He had broad knowledge and love of classical music and still made the considerable effort to experience live performances in his latter years. He was also an avid rugby and cricket supporter and a close reader of his daily newspapers.

He was husband to Jessica, father of Dan, Sheba, Lynne, Mark, James and Gaby and grandfather to Sara, Ben, Max, Sam and Joe.


5 thoughts on “A Great Man: Les Brener, 1930-2015

  1. Pingback: Read a tribute to PMA Australia’s Les Brener in Photo Counter

  2. Nicely written Keith, I keep learning more about Les. You are so right you never could say no to Les.

    I just hope that PMAI keeps PMA Australia going, with the great work by Les and followed by Terry and Peter it is only fitting.

  3. There is little more to say. The industry was the better for his presence and will not see his like again, rest in peace Les you have touched all our lives.

  4. I vividly remember my first encounter with Les at an early PMA show in Sydney in the mid 1980’s. I was a young larrikin at the time and Les approached me and asked if I was sitting for the CPC exam, which was then the Certified Photographic Councillor, which was commencing in 10 mins. What is this CPC I asked? Don’t worry, just a knowledge test. Easy as pie he insisted. Ok I’ll give it a go. I passed first time round, and I recall Les giving me a congrats phone call. From that beginning Les was always shaking my hand and having a good friendly chat at every PMA show where we would catch up. It was an annual event for me between Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane and Les’s infectious smile and friendship was always part of Les’s persona. And Les had a photographic memory for names. A great ambassador for the Australian Photographic Industry, and will be sorely missed by many. RIP Les, it was such a pleasure knowing you, from our first encounter 30 odd years ago.

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