Sydney Morning Herald

Pinhole revisited opens fresh windows on world

2 May 2006

The camera is primitive, but the results sparkle, writes Robert McFarlane.

JUST when other photographers are deserting film for the instant delights of digital photography, Anthony Browell has reverted to a pinhole camera fashioned from plywood, copper and brass.

Browell's primitive creation uses a tiny aperture in the front of the camera to allow a faint amount of light to travel from the subject to the surface of the film, or light-sensitive paper. It's a slow process that requires long exposures of several minutes (made by simply removing and replacing a brass cap). The results, however - as seen in Point Light Gallery - are both subtle and spectacular.

This is photography completely uncommitted to the moment. Through the use of exposures that take minutes, Browell's subjects - portraits, nudes and landscapes - are suspended into timeless attitudes. A female nude on a deserted beach becomes, during the several minutes of exposure required, almost translucent as glittering highlights from the shoreline appear to shine through the woman's limbs.

The portraits, however, are the biggest surprise. Browell achieves extraordinarily fine detail with his pinhole camera. (The size of the aperture is crucial - too small a hole can result in diffuse images, too large affects focus.) Each print also radiates a soft, full black and white tonality.

Browell's image of photographer David Potts sitting in front of a light-dappled wall, shot this year, is a fine rendering of this impassive pioneer of Australian photojournalism. Children, one imagines, would be difficult to photograph during the long exposures demanded by pinhole cameras, but Browell's image of his grandson Harry, peering from the window of a rustic shed, has a haunting vulnerability.

During a long career as one of Australia's most accomplished editorial photographers, Browell claims to have worked with almost every kind of camera. "The pinhole camera," he says, "has revived my interest and curiosity in photography. You don't so much as take photographs but divine your subject. Because there is no viewfinder you have to imagine someone (within the frame).

"I set the camera straight and try and get the head in the middle of the frame, otherwise it distorts. I sometimes also ask the subject to look through the camera towards infinity. You [then] have to let it happen and it does. When you go into the darkroom and finally see [the picture] it is riveting. You couldn't get this result with an ordinary camera."

It is just possible that pinhole photography is a reaction against the sheer efficiency with which today's digital cameras capture fleeting moments of life. Browell's latest photographs are a timely reminder that, as the late David Moore once argued, photography should also address what he coined the soft spread of time.

On the evidence of Aussies All at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra, the late Rennie Ellis was almost omnipresent among the nation's good, bad and beautiful.

There is a strong diarist touch to many colour images - from Alan Bond in bed in luxurious surrounds, to a sprinkling of personalities at the Melbourne Cup and Weavers, an artless 1981 moment showing a middle-aged man having his hair brushed by a naked woman. Ellis also photographed an unclad Carol Jerrems during a tender, golden Degas moment in 1970.

Present in almost every picture is the emotional aftertaste Ellis left with his subjects - an inevitable smile at the ebullient photographer's affectionate presence or occasionally an uncharacteristic reserve, as in his fine 1970 portrait of artist Rex Battersby.

Looking at Ellis's photographs on show, it seems he enjoyed being jointly acknowledged as both photographer and a well-known Melbourne personality. When I finally discovered a photograph in which an Ellis subject is observed apparently undisturbed - like an impeccably groomed Andrew Peacock with then wife Susan in 1969 - its historical value soared for me.

There is also a sense that this selection of Ellis photographs is personality driven - from Elle Macpherson pictured in a lame promotion for the AFL to the inevitable gaggle of mini-celebrities at the Melbourne Cup. Perhaps there will be a future exhibition of photographs, possibly black and white only, showing the late Ellis in a deeper, more timeless light.

Part One is a quietly amusing selection of documentary photographs by Karl Sharp at Summer Hill's elegant Red Door Gallery. Sharp makes a virtue of gently satirising Australian life - from surreal sousaphone players at the Sydney Opera House in 1998, to a dark horse wandering into a men's toilet at the 1996 Royal Easter Show. Sharp's career to date has mainly consisted of photographing the humble cycles of daily life, mostly for state and federal libraries. Part One is a celebration of Sharp's respect for the anonymous human moment, without alteration or undue emphasis.


Australia to the world

1 May 2006

City News

Photographer with a reminiscent eye

27 April 2006

The Canberra Times

Cheeky snaps expose man behind the lens

22 April 2006

Sunday Age

A lasting impression

2 April 2006

Simon Elliott, The National Portrait Gallery

Aussies All - Portrait Photography by Rennie Ellis

1 April 2006

They represent a peculiarly Australian distillation of the life force itself – encapsulated moments where the subjects paused, and perhaps posed, for the camera - Rennie Ellis

When Melbourne-based photographer Rennie Ellis died in August 2003, Australia lost one of its most prolific and gifted social documenters. Over three decades, the gregarious Ellis attempted to capture the broad character of Australia. He published 17 books of photographs of all kinds of Australians - its social elites, opinion makers and highfliers, its well-known as well as its everyday figures - going about their lives, embracing the pleasures of the beach, the races, parties, street life, music and sport. The National Portrait Gallery exhibition Aussies All is the first exhibition of Ellis's work since his untimely death. Ellis was drawn to people who loved life; he embraced the spirit of his subjects and captured their qualities with characteristic wit. Such was his personality, it was reported that more than a thousand people attended his funeral. Many of these friends and associates are pictured in Aussies All. Distilled from an estimated 500,000 images in Melbourne's Rennie Ellis Photographic Archive, it celebrates Ellis's life and talent through more than 100 portrait images from the late 1960s up to 2003.

Born in 1940, Reynolds Mark 'Rennie' Ellis grew up in the bay side suburb of Brighton, Victoria. At Brighton Grammar school he demonstrated a strong interest in the humanities, excelled at football and was a star swimmer. He gained a scholarship to Melbourne University, but yearned for something more creative than undergraduate study. In 1959, at the age of 18, he scored a job as an office boy at the advertising firm Orr-Skate and Associates. After four years he was writing scripts, producing television commercials and becoming increasingly interested in the photography he saw in the magazines coming through the office.

According to his cousin, Melbourne photographer Robert Ashton, Ellis was a man who would rather buy a plane ticket to Rio than fix his car; "it was the Carnivale over the carburettor any day." He left Australia in 1963 with a surf board and a camera, hitching through the USA and wending his way through Europe. In Paris in 1964, when he was living under the Pont Louis Philippe with a miscellaneous bunch of 'beats', he met Australian artist Fred Williams, there on a Helena Rubenstein Art Scholarship. A musician friend in common introduced Ellis to Williams, who invited his young compatriot for coffee and a snack in a St. Michel café. Identified as a bridge dweller, Ellis was refused service. He was embarrassed for Williams, and rose to leave, but declaring that "either they serve us all or none of us," the painter led the way to the door and a friendlier café. "I decided then and there that I was in the company of a good bloke true to his Aussie democratic roots," Ellis recalled. Surfing from Portugal to Puerto Rico (and writing about it for surfing magazines), stowing away across the Pacific, he returned, eventually, to Australia via New Zealand.

Not long after his return, Ellis found himself at a crossroads in his career. His appreciation of photography had developed as he rejoined the advertising world, becoming a creative director at the dynamic Monahan Dayman (later Monahan Dayman Adams) agency. Gareth Powell, who later set up the watershed magazine POL, arrived in Australia and teamed up with Jack de Lissa to launch the men's magazine Chance. Ellis was offered the position of Melbourne editor, writing and taking pictures for Chance. Henceforth, with no formal training in photography, he earned his living primarily as a freelance photographer. Operating out of a studio in Greville Street, Prahran in inner Melbourne, Ellis became a prolific contributor to a range of Australian and international magazines including Playboy, The Bulletin, Walkabout, Nation Review, POL, Mode, Vanity Fair, Tatler, Vogue and Photo. Former editor of Walkabout magazine, John Ross remembered the office as being a 'legend for chaos combined... with urgent assignments and demands but seldom interfering with lunch'. Promoting the art of photography through lectures and writing, he also pioneered a photographic library, Scoopix, for the sale of his images worldwide as well as becoming the exclusive agent in Australia for leading photographic agency Black Star, New York. He exhibited continuously from the early 1970s onwards, from the Kings Cross exhibition in 1971 at Sydney's Yellow House, to Heroes and Anti-Heroes with Carol Jerrems at the Photographers' Gallery in Melbourne in 1976. Little wonder that he once complained that there were never enough hours in the day.

As photography came of age in Australia in the 1970s, Ellis was a driving force behind increased public awareness of photography as an artform. In 1972 he opened Australia's first dedicated photography gallery, the Brummels Gallery of Photography in Toorak Road, Melbourne. Over the next eight years its exhibitors included many notable names in Australian photography, including Henry Talbot, Carol Jerrems, Wesley Stacey, David Moore, John Rhodes, Jon Lewis, John Williams, Ponch Hawkes, Sue Ford and Melanie LeGuay. Robert Ashton recalled that the exhibitions at Brummels had no particular theme; "the main ingredients were enthusiasm, raw talent, and craftsmanship". On hearing of Ellis's initiative, Monahan Dayman Adams director Phillip Adams wrote to Rennie stating that "in Russia they would make you a hero of the Soviet Union, in Japan the Diet would declare you a national treasure, but here the philistines will probably break your heart". Outside of the darkroom, however, Rennie preferred not to dwell on the negative.

It was inevitable that Ellis's love of photography and writing, fuelled by his energy and enthusiasm, would lead him into publishing his own work. He commenced by exploring the underbelly of Sydney's Kings Cross, accompanied by close friend Wesley Stacey. The activities of the people they documented there were then considered scandalous, but their images, expressive of their own curiosity, display warmth for the people of this hidden world. "I developed a compulsion to document the theatre of behaviour", said Ellis, "to offer insights and revelations into other people's worlds especially the offbeat, the erotic and the eccentric, my camera... became the key that unlocked doors and gave me access to engage in a great variety of encounters that otherwise would have been outside my experience". Kings Cross Sydney published in 1971, was the start of many more publications. Life's a Beach - its title coined by Ellis - sold over 30,000 copies following its publication in 1983.

With the camera as his companion and passport, Ellis moved effortlessly between different social worlds. Ashton observed that "he was often involved in the situation he was photographing and the boundaries between life, working and art were frequently blurred". While he continued to head for the beach whenever he could, Ellis never missed a spring racing carnival, a grand final; he covered art openings, demonstrations, festivals, fashion parades and music events. He captured gatherings ranging from A-list parties to behind-closed-doors affairs, recording people and events without judgment or voyeurism but rather a sense of curiosity and inclusiveness. For the Bond, Skase, Smorgan, Packer and Fox families he was the photographer of choice at significant family celebrations. Not for Ellis the staid, posed photographs that are staples of the wedding genre; he embraced the candid moment in social photography, welcoming the unrehearsed and seeking the unguarded moment. Filmmaker and friend, Fred Schepisi remembers that he had "the knack of being invisible while encouraging the event to take place".

Although his photographs are held in collections in Australia, France, China and the USA, and his awards included an Art Directors Club Award for Photojournalism and a United Nations Habitat Award for photography, Ellis had little interest in photographic technique beyond correct exposure and the quality of the light, once saying that he was "interested in images rather than f-stops." Although well known in the photographic world, his name is often absent from authoritative Australian photographic anthologies. Ellis's enthusiasm for documenting scantily clad women and hedonistic Australian culture, are now rather unfashionable. Almost certainly, these aspects of his work, combined with his zeal to self-publish, have discouraged critical examination of the value and importance of Ellis's work in photography in Australia. As time passes, and more unpublished photographs are revealed from the Ellis Archive, his images will increase in value as historical records. Moreover, his work deserves a broader and deeper appreciation in the context of the development of Australian photography, which he himself did so much to promote. When pressed to categorise his own photography as to whether it was art, social realism, photojournalism or simply slice-of-life indulgence, Ellis replied with a quote from the pioneering American photographer Alfred Stieglitz: "Art or not art, that is immaterial - I continue on my own way, seeking my own truth, ever affirming today." In tribute to Rennie, Aussies All continues that process of affirmation. 

Courtesy of Simon Elliott, Assistant Director, National Portrait Gallery

Financial Review Magazine

Australians All

1 April 2006