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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

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