The Ian Potter Centre, NGV Australia
Federation Square, Melbourne Victoria
“Art or not art, that is immaterial – I continue on my way, seeking my own truth, ever affirming today.”
In 1977 Rennie Ellis used this quote, by the American photographer Alfred Stieglitz, to explain the rationale for his own photography. When he began to photograph, Ellis aspired to work as a photojournalist, but within a few years he had moved away from the more detached and objective position of a reporter. Rennie Ellis was wholeheartedly engaged with life, with the absurdities, the ironies, the passion and the small dramas of the everyday.
Rennie was renowned for his candid documentary images of contemporary Australian life. He was best known for his photographs of social events, such as music festivals, fashion parades or nightclubs. But his oeuvre also encompassed the grittier side of life. During his career he photographed life on the streets, sometimes showing the darker aspects of society such as his Kings Cross series. Ultimately, Ellis’ vision of the world was celebratory; his photographs in this exhibition document the richness and diversity of contemporary life from the 1970s and 1980s.
In a career that spanned forty years he avidly photographed people from all walks of life doing all manner of things. His legacy is a vast collection of photographs that celebrate life. The warmth of the man and his non-judgemental approach to the people he encountered is evident in his work. His photographs remain as a lasting affirmation of his times.
In the years since the unexpected and untimely death of Rennie Ellis in 2003, the National Gallery of Victoria has been engaged in a major project, working with the Rennie Ellis Photographic Archive to exhibit and publish his work. While Ellis may be known primarily for the books of photographs that he published, this is really only a fraction of the vast body of work that he produced during his prolific life. This exhibition, and the accompanying catalogue, focus on Ellis’s work in the 1970s and 1980s and brings together almost two hundred photographs, which, to paraphrase Stieglitz, affirm the importance of the everyday and show how wonderful and surprising life can be.
The title of the exhibition, No Standing, Only Dancing, comes from one of Rennie’s own works and was chosen because it seems to encapsulate something essential of the man himself. He was tirelessly energetic, eager for new experiences and a prodigious worker, but he never forgot about enjoying life along the way.