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Mirror on a society reinventing itself

28 August 2013

Rennie Ellis compulsively documented Australian social life for 40 years. The State Library of Victoria holds almost a half a million of his photographs.

When Ellis died in 2003, aged 62, he left a mock-up of a long-planned book subtitled "An experience of the seventies in Australia". Decade: 1970-1980, as it is called, has at last been published, by Hardie Grant Books.

In an introductory essay, filmmaker Paul Cox recalls that, "Many of us found our voices in the seventies. The atmosphere was kind, non-commercial and forgiving."

A writer turned photographer, Ellis seems to have grasped the opportunities of that pivotal decade with both hands, even setting up the first photographic gallery in Australia above a restaurant in South Yarra in '72.

Everything you need to know about the '70s is in his images. Although just 12 of the more than 250 in the book are on display here (hand-printed by CPL Digital in South Melbourne), they include two beauties: Fitzroy Extrovert and Dino Ferrari, Toorak Road.

The caption on the latter is a statement of journalistic intent: "Sitting in Barola Bistro, South Yarra. Attention taken by the exit of an unsubtle lady. Intuition encourages me to follow her. She engages the Dino Ferrari. The wind blows. Snap!"

Ellis was following the dictum of Henri Cartier-Bresson, responding to what the French master of photo-journalism called "the decisive moment".

Memorable images of nightlife include a Kings Cross strip-club spruiker whose broodiness is straight out of a Caravaggio oil painting. See, in contrast, a scene that might have been drawn by Eric Thake in the 1950s, of men in felt hats drinking schooners of beer in a public bar - old Australia in the cold light of day.

The evidence here is of a society reinventing itself, trying anything, on a shoestring. Turn the page, move down the gallery, and Sharpies square up to Ellis' lens in the braces, boots and cloth caps of English bovver boys.

This display juxtaposes the leggy lady leaning into the Dino Ferrari sports car with Fitzroy Extrovert - a yobbo in a singlet leaning from the waist out of the window of the back seat of a Valiant, fag in his outstretched hand, drinking from a longneck, darkly handsome with aquiline nose and strong jaw.

These two images are replete with signifiers of class and privilege, of sexual transaction and gender display, and of a monstrous hybridity: half-woman, half-car in the one; and half-man, half-car in the other.

I am transfixed by another image, that of two slim-hipped girls immortalised in Mates, Prahran, arms draped around each others' shoulders, standing in a run-down backyard with its clothes line and thunder box.

Despite the swagger and air of menace of the girl on the left, this is one of the more static images here and, because of that, we feel the presence of the photographer and a perhaps unspoken agreement to keep his distance.

In the unforgettable underwater image My Son Josh Learns to Swim, the infant seemingly blissfully floats upwards while a concerned adult flails towards him and an enraptured older boy appears to shepherd by virtue of his gaze and a withheld embrace the infant's blessed rise.

It pictures complete confidence and agonising doubt. And that dichotomy is typical: Ellis gives us the best and worst of a situation in a single image.

Exhibition runs until 30 August at Mossgreen Gallery, 310 Toorak Road, South Yarra

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