The Age, article by Penny Webb

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

Broadsheet: Review by Emily Bour

Mossgreen Gallery gives a fresh vantage on a series of images by the late photographer Rennie Ellis, renowned for his candid deptiction of Australian life

8 February 2012

This is the Show affirms the title for the upcoming exhibition opening at Mossgreen Gallery this Friday. Drawing on more than 40 years worth of work from the Rennie Ellis photographic archive, the images on show centre around personal identity and that age-old subject of the elusive beauty of the female form.

Ellis points his lens to various activities of the night. We peer inside Midnight Cabaret Shows in Sydney’s King’s Cross, along with other establishments such as the Ritz in St Kilda, the infamous Maxine's, even into the recesses of New York's streets. There is a definite element of sensuality to these often dark and atmospheric images, but an equally vivid rendering of the fantasy offered by entertainment. They flicker between an animalistic desire for the female form, and a perspective that is also, quite simply, admiring.

Flashing men also feature in Ellis's collection of images, though less extensively. Girls Night Out (1980), taken in Prahran, observes women demonstrating their voyeuristic tendencies as they throw all good manners out of the window. In other places, we are afforded a rare look backstage as Ellis hands us our private pass beyond the careful construct of the stage and the show. In Carlotta & Electra (1970-71) and Backstage Dressing Room (1977) we are allowed to gaze happily into the change rooms of erotic dancers. They smile back, welcoming our presence. But it is My Bare Lady (1977) – the only colour photograph in the series – that truly transcends mere documentation, offering a painterly elegance reminiscent of masters such as Degas.

In the same way that light enters a lens and imprints itself onto the film within the camera, Ellis's vision trickles into the pot of collective memory. These images become more potent with a longer exposure.

This is the Show by Rennie Ellis runs from February 11 to March 3 at Mossgreen Gallery.


The Age, article by Janice Breen Burns

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