Sunday Age

Redefining Rennie

12 December 2004

To many, Rennie Ellis was simply a celebrated social snapper. Now his extensive archive opens a window on Ellis as an artist recording life. By Peter Wilmoth.

In the midden that for 30 years was his desk in his chaotic office in Greville Street, Prahran, Rennie Ellis could always locate a negative or a print or a 20-year-old menu or a newspaper article he'd cut out or a note he'd made to himself in 1985. The problem was, no one else could.

"His desk would be packed from floor to ceiling and, when that was full, he would move to the next desk and then, when the office was full, he would start at home," says Manuela Furci, his personal assistant for 10 years. "Whenever I wanted to organise his office, he'd say, 'Don't touch that'."

When Ellis died in August last year, Furci and Ellis' wife, Kerry Oldfield, began the awesome task of cleaning out 30 years of articles he'd written, notes from advertising college in the '60s, tickets, brochures, boxes of spiral notepads, every account and invoice for three decades and every invitation he received over those years - which, given Ellis' role as Australia's best known social photographer, was a lot. It took nearly three months for Furci and Oldfield to remove "31 cubic metres of rubbish".

Amid all this was Ellis' great legacy and one that photographic experts are describing as a historical treasure trove: more than 500,000 images shot by Ellis since the late 1960s, which Oldfield and Furci are working full-time to edit, catalogue and, eventually, digitise. His desk might have been untidy, but photographic historians are excited that Ellis was a hoarder and that, one day, when the photos are in order, Australians will be able to see themselves reflected in the work of a photographer whose great skill was, according to Gael Newton, senior curator of photography at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, "catching life on the run".

We are in the office of the Rennie Ellis Archive in St Kilda. There is a cupboard full of cardboard boxes of Ellis' shots and filing cabinets full of transparencies marked "England", "Italy", "France", "Rio", "Greece", "People" and, famously, "Beach" (his 1983 book Life's a Beach sold 30,000 copies). On the wall are photos of and by Ellis. It's in here that Oldfield and Furci spend their days, trying to ensure Ellis' place in Australia's photographic and cultural history. It's what Ellis would have wanted. He was always frustrated that he was known mainly for his candid social photography in magazines such as Mode and Pol rather than the grittier work: portraits of junkies, strippers, prostitutes and the denizens of Kings Cross in Sydney he shot and published, with Wesley Stacey, in 1971, or the unposed "slice of human life" shots with which he would become so associated.

"Rennie's dream was to have a major retrospective at the National Gallery of Victoria, so that's my main goal," says Oldfield. She also plans a publication, exhibitions, and limited-edition prints for sale, and to place much of his work in a photo library for use by the media.

Those who remember Ellis as a social snapper, will see him redefined over the next couple of years. "The archive will show Rennie as a full person who wasn't just a social photographer," says Oldfield. "He did 17 books: on being a child in Bali, on railways stations, on graffiti. He was caught in the world of a photographer trying to make a living, and you don't make a living from books and exhibitions of fine art photography alone. You have to be a provider as well."

Manuela Furci says: "People know Max Dupain and David Moore, but photography students need to know Rennie. He was the first photographer to introduce the candid shot, the first person to have a photo gallery and photo library, which is indispensable for the media. All that needs to be celebrated and not forgotten."

Isobel Crombie, senior curator of photography at the National Gallery of Victoria agrees: "There seems to be a lot of work that he shot but never exhibited. There will be a huge archive of work, which means over the next couple of years he will be reassessed. We only know the tip of the iceberg through his books. Some of this work will reveal him to be a very substantial photographer." She says she hopes the NGV stages a major retrospective.

Andrew Sayers, director of the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra, is also keen to see what is in the archive for a possible show. "Rennie had a sense of the importance of what's in the archive," he says. "The fact he stayed in one office for all those years is extremely beneficial. One of the things you notice with photographers is that it's fatal if they move. It's amazing what has been lost of Australia's photographic record."

Because Ellis' work was so flagrantly modern, a triumph of image rather than technical brilliance, it will provide, says his friend film director Fred Schepisi, "a wonderful record of us". True appreciation might take time. Gael Newton says: "They can only grow in their significance the further we travel from their date."

Melbourne has seemed a less colourful place since Rennie Ellis died in August 2003, aged 62, of a cerebral hemorrhage. Always looking at least 10 years younger than he was, with his long, straggly hair, slightly unkempt beard and moustache and loose-fitting bohemian wardrobe, Rennie was Melbourne's eternally young omnipresent chronicler, always cheerful, always snapping, always looking for his next shot, a sense of mischief and restlessness mixed with a relentless optimism. Among a certain scene, it was said you'd only made it when Rennie Ellis came to your party with his camera.

Today, Kerry Oldfield sits at the Dog's Bar in St Kilda remembering her husband.

Two days before he died, Ellis and their 11-year-old daughter Sylvie went on a long bike ride around St Kilda.

The next day, he went to an exhibition and then to a friend's for dinner. The following day, a Monday, Oldfield came home at 6pm and found Rennie collapsed on the front veranda with the phone in his hand obviously, she says, having tried to get help. "He was still breathing, but he never woke up," she says.

His death was completely unexpected. He left Kerry, son Josh, a photographer now 33 (from his first marriage to Carol Silk) and Sylvie (now nearly 13), whose netball team he coached.

A celebration of his life at the Prahran Town Hall, just up the road from his office and where he went to lunch nearly every day at The Continental, attracted 1200 people.

In The Age, Michael Leunig, a former fellow contributor to the newspaper Nation Review, celebrated him. "Life's a beach!' said Rennie Ellis with a lively grin, he let each picture tell us that the tide comes in."

His death shocked his extraordinary network of friends around the world because he had for so long embodied the idea of youth, fun and outrage. "When someone is larger than life, you expect them to live forever," says Manuela Furci. "Rennie for me was like a rock. Rennie was always going to be there. He was too big to die. And that's why, in a way, he still does exist."

Fred Schepisi and Ellis became friends after meeting in the advertising industry in the late 1960s. Schepisi heard about Ellis' death while shooting the film Empire Falls, starring Paul Newman, in the northern US state of Maine. The Schepisi party were in a restaurant.

"We had ordered some medium-priced bottles of wine, so we sent those back and thought, 'We have to do this properly and get really good wine'," Schepisi says. "It was an immediate memorial for Rennie. We regaled our guests with stories about him. We tried to do it the way Rennie would have done it."

The way Rennie did it was often seat-of-the-pants spontaneity. "Rennie would always say, 'I just blunder on, onwards and upwards'," says Kerry Oldfield. "It was day by day. That is what's kept me going, to just blunder on. He would hate me or Sylvie or Josh and everyone else who loved him to disappear into regret."

Ellis himself had few regrets. He turned his back on what could have been a lucrative and stable career in advertising for the exciting but financially precarious world of freelance photo journalism.

"If you said, 'Rennie, you have to spend $5000 fixing your roof', he wouldn't, but he would spend $5000 going to a friend's party in France," says his cousin, the photographer Robert Ashton. "He most valued experiences."

Rennie Ellis lived several lives after his birth in Hampden in 1940. His fascination for people, places and events never left him.

He was happiest when on an overseas adventure to places such as India, Bali or France with his camera - preferably paid for by someone else by organising someone to photograph or interview en route - then returning to his beloved Melbourne and his home in Prahran.

"Rennie loved Melbourne with a passion," says Oldfield. "He would never have lived anywhere else. He used to love visitors coming to stay and showing them the city. He'd say, 'There's so much going on here'."

Ellis knew everyone and everyone knew him. Robert Ashton wrote: "He became addicted to the adventure, the thrill, and committed himself to a lifelong hunt for new experiences, new situations and new people. The camera was the perfect passport."

Ellis, Ashton says, was attracted to the bizarre and the erotic, his photographic excursions "a series of encounters with other people's lives". And the boundaries between life, work and art were, Ashton says, often blurred.

It was this sense of involvement in the photo that has set Ellis apart from his contemporaries, according to Gael Newton. "Some photographers treat people on the street a bit like wildlife - everyone's exotic. Rennie was like a gyroscope: he stood at the centre and photographed what was going on around him."

His work was also distinguished by a lack of value judgements. "In the '70s in Kings Cross, Rennie and Wesley (Stacey) were looking at things that were regarded as shameful. They photographed it with a not-quite-celebratory way but in a way that was a much more neutral and accepting and fascinated view of the Cross than you would have found at the time in mainstream magazines." As Oldfield says: "He was non-judgemental. He would be exactly the same with a drunk on the street as he would be with royalty."

In 1972, Rennie opened what was probably Australia's first privately run photographic gallery called Brummels Gallery of Photography, named after the restaurant underneath in Toorak Road, South Yarra. He was passionate about showing the works of Australian photographers. Among those whose works he exhibited were Carol Jerrems, David Moore, Robert Ashton, Jon Lewis and Ponch Hawkes. But, despite a sponsorship from Pentax, the money dried up and the gallery closed in 1980.

His enthusiasm for the different styles of his contemporaries was always appreciated. Ponch Hawkes remembers Ellis staging her show at Brummels in 1977. "Being a feminist from the other side of the river with overalls and spiky hair and doing photos of relationships between mothers and their daughters - and here was Rennie out there on the beach taking photos of tits and bums. It was a strange mix." She says she felt real warmth and love amid the crowd at his funeral. "He was such a fantastic person. He always made you feel like you were his best friend."

When the gallery folded, Ellis shrugged and powered on, becoming famous for introducing the candid social photo, which, says Robert Ashton, "perhaps changed the course of social photography in Australia".

He was after the unrehearsed, unguarded, funny and telling moments that don't come from asking for poses.

"He liked to capture the absolutely perfect moment of any event that he was at," says Fred Schepisi. "He had the knack of being invisible while trying to encourage the event to take place."

Living and working with Ellis was an exercise in patience, stamina and tolerance. "He would ring and say 'Be ready in 15 minutes and wear something glamorous', and he wouldn't say where we were going," remembers Furci.

This didn't rub well with Oldfield when Sylvie was a baby. "He'd ring late in the afternoon and say, 'We've got tickets to this thing tonight'. Right, not so great with a small baby. I'd say, 'What do I do with Sylvie?"'

But nothing, including details such as babysitters, slowed him down. Life was an adventure, every moment to be savoured, whether it was photographing semi-clad models backstage at a fashion show, blokes drinking beer on the beach, Barry Humphries in skimpy bathers painting at Cathedral Rock or the tired and emotional at the Melbourne Cup. "He never lost that childlike curiosity," says Furci. "That's why he became a photographer and voyeur because he was curious about everything. That's what kept him youthful. That curiosity was with him until he died."

Ellis was transfixed by the idea of being where the action was. He could never stand the possibility of missing out. "You'd go out and it'd be 1.30am," says Robert Ashton, "and we were ready to go home but there'd be just one little bar or a club where Rennie would want to have a little nightcap because he could never be sure that something wouldn't happen there. The night was never quite over."

Although well known for his shots in the now defunct Mode, Pol and other social magazines, his work was difficult to define. He hated being called "paparazzi" because that implied an exploitation of his subjects. He was welcome at the events he photographed, including the Fox children's 21st birthday parties and Paul Hogan's wedding. His subject matter ranged from nudes to heroin addicts to dominatrixes to the people at his beloved Prahran Market, which he was active in saving from development.

"A lot of people would have questioned that notion of Rennie as an artist," says Ashton. "His art was in the way he could relate to people, and that's how he got his greatest shots. He had no predatory ideas. He was very confident and non-threatening, so it allowed him to get into these places and take photos, whether it was a woman with no clothes on or a bikie or a member of a gang. They understood his integrity. They knew he had an honesty about him."

"People just kind of like my style," Ellis told a television interviewer in 1986. "I'm a nice person, you know. I don't over-intrude. I know how to handle myself with people."

And it was always about people.

"You certainly wouldn't find him photographing a deserted landscape," says Ashton. "He could see the beauty but not the value of that." It was, consistently, people and action.

Tony Wheeler, publisher of the Lonely Planet travel guides, used several of Ellis' shots over the years, including one for the cover of the 1991 China guide, which featured "a grumpy Chinese man guarding a row of bicycles".

"There was an awful lot of fun in Rennie's photography," Wheeler says. "The ones who are really good at taking shots of people have a natural charm, it's not just shoving a camera in their face. There's a sort of empathy with people. You could pick a Rennie Ellis shot."

Ellis' life was a financial high-wire act, but everything always worked out.

Kerry Oldfield remembers the family driving late at night outside Paris looking for a place to stay (Josh was 14). All the small hotels were closed.

"I was, 'Oh my God'," she says. "Rennie was, 'We'll find something'. Rennie was tramping down alleyways of towns we didn't know and he'd tramp back, 'I found somewhere!' He felt he was invulnerable."

Oldfield says he would often drive off with the camera on the roof of his car. Once he re-traced his steps and found it "in a million pieces on High Street".

"He gathered it in a plastic bag and took it to the manufacturer and said, 'I'm not happy with the camera'. He did it as a joke, but he came home and said they gave him a new one."

He always believed in the power of the positive. "There was probably one person in the whole world who gave him the shits," says Robert Ashton. "He always saw the best in people, which astounded me."

This upbeat demeanour helped in a crisis. During a small riot in Marrakech in the mid-1980s, Oldfield remembers Ellis diffusing things by "jumping in, doing sign language, doing funny little dances; he always found a solution. He was very street-smart".

Despite his day-to-day philosophy, there were quite a few consistencies in his life. One was a nearly daily lunch at The Continental, in Prahran, where he would often fall asleep over his newspaper. "I like to think it looks as though I am reading even if I don't move for 10 minutes," he wrote in 1994. "Call it an after-lunch nap, it's a sort of siesta time." Another consistency was a lack of punctuality, operating under what Ashton calls "a flexible notion of time". Oldfield once wrote a booklet named Waiting for Rennie. "I spent one-third of my life waiting for him," she says. "He wouldn't go to one thing in a night, he'd go to five. It was always the possibility of a conversation, an interesting encounter. It was, 'I'm late because I met up with these backpackers and they were telling me their story'.

"Often I'd be waiting for him with guests around and I'd say 'Where is he?' and he'd be asleep in the car for the last half hour having listened to something interesting on the radio."

Jenny Bannister was an early discovery of Ellis'. In 1976, he noticed the clothes designer and her model sister Wendy at a party and asked if he could take their photograph. It was a "fabulous hotchpotch" time of unisex streetwear, plastic dresses and anything that would get a designer's name in Ragtimes magazine.

Even though Ellis had a pre-occupation with the erotic and the bizarre - and photographed many women for Playboy magazine - he was thought of by women as unthreatening. "He had this way of getting what he wanted in a very gentle way," says Jenny Bannister. "You were doing it before you knew you were doing it. Afterwards you'd think, 'How did I let him get away with that?' "

Until his death, he was working on a book of erotic photos he referred to as "the women book".

Ellis was a sometime entrepreneur (for a short time in the '70s he ran a business selling package deals to Bali), but photography was his passion and his release. He once said: "Photography is a way of freeing myself. It allows me to leave my own time and space and to occupy, if only superficially and for a short time, another, often alien, environment."

Despite appearances, Ellis towards the end of his life was not carefree. Close friends say he struggled with some health issues in the last couple of years of his life. "He could get out of any jam, but he was shocked there was a situation he couldn't be the master of," says Robert Ashton.

There was another side to Ellis that few saw. He found turning 60 hard to deal with, says Oldfield. "At 60, he had to become introspective. Instead of being out there on the great adventure, he had to start processing what he'd done."

He had written five chapters of an autobiography, tentatively titled Ellis in Wonderland, a title he didn't like but, according to John Ross who published six of his books including Life's a Beach, "he would have come round to it". "I miss him dreadfully," says Ross. "He was a person with whom you could have wonderful wide-ranging discussions, and personal ones. He had the gift of friendship and the gift of a beautiful eye in his work."

He says some time needs to pass before Ellis' work is fully appreciated. "There needs to be a slight hiatus and they'll fall on him in a few decades as a mirror to the time and society he lived in. It's terrible to say it, but it's too recent. It's almost part of us right now."

At Ellis' wake, Jenny Bannister noticed an unusual couple, whom she approached. "How did you know Rennie?" With a Russian accent, they said, "Who's Rennie?" They were Russian backpackers who'd crashed his wake. "Rennie would have liked that. He would have probably invited them to come home with him."

There's something a little quieter about life now. Says Oldfield: "For the last year I've half expected him to walk in the door with some extraordinary story about why he was late."

Rennie Ellis made Kerry Oldfield laugh for the 18 years they were married, so she wasn't overly surprised when she read his will. "He left me his archive, but also all these detailed instructions . . . names of people to approach who may want to use the shots, instructions about copyright and it was 'Yes, Ren'. Then he said, 'Look, it's all too complicated, I'm going to bale out. That's one of the advantages of being dead, I can bale. The other one is not having to shave'."