One of Australia’s most prolific and well-known social photographers, Rennie Ellis captured an era of excess and optimism. But what does Ellis’ artistic and political legacy mean in 2017?
Perhaps the steepest investment in Australian photobook publishing in recent history has been the release of two large-size surveys of the work of photographer Rennie Ellis – the too-clever twinning of Decade 1970–1980 and Decadent 1980–2000 – by commercial publisher Hardie Grant. It is rare for publications of such size to occur outside of the publishing arms of the major art galleries – and, indeed, State Library Victoria had a hand in the production of these black and gold monoliths. Why the commercial vote of confidence? It, surely, has something to do with the way Rennie Ellis’ work shows a side of Australia that we very much like to buy into, and, indeed, sell on to the outside world: one of extravagant, outward sociability. Visible through cutouts in the cover of Decade is a photograph of a mulleted hoon in a wife-beater, leaning out of a car window, necking a beer while waving for the camera. The photograph is called Fitzroy Extrovert.
Originally conceived in the 1980s, Decade was long-delayed, and ultimately Ellis, who died in 2003, was unable to complete the work himself. Ellis began his career as a writer, working in advertising for nearly a decade before dropping out of the industry and travelling widely before developing an obsessive passion for photography. Decade, in part, documents that transformation. Ellis had, during his lifetime, gone as far as producing a dummy for the book, including authoring a draft introduction, in which he laid out what he saw as the key to reading his work: ‘In many ways, this book is Me. It is both the outline and the guts of my experience, my desires, and fantasies, my loves.’ For a book made up of images of thousands of people, it is an interesting choice to come back to singular selfhood – one questions whether photography is the sort of authoritative medium that enables an autobiography to be told through others.
Ellis was no narcissist – he reopened the Brummels Gallery in South Yarra, Australia’s first gallery dedicated solely to photography, helping countless of his contemporaries to find new audiences – but he does himself a disservice by centring himself so fully. His body of work ultimately has a deliberate social function: the documentation of an awkward, often ugly nation and its restless political body. This is softened, perhaps, by a specific Boomer-era optimism; unsurprising, as Ellis was above all a populist.
Throughout the 1980s and 90s, Ellis released a series of books that went on to read like a series of diminishing Hollywood sequels: Life’s A Beach, Life’s A Ball, Life’s A Beer, Life’s A Beach II, Life’s Still A Beach. They sound like bad, hokey fathers’ day gifts – maybe Ellis was okay with taking up that position in Australian photography (the books would form a guide for curators to choose the photographs for Decadent, which, unlike Decade, had no dummy manuscript). The scenes he frequents are telling: barbecues, bars, the beach, bordellos. Ellis thrilled to a throng. It is no surprise, then, that Decade is preoccupied with large scale protest movements and social gatherings. An aerial photograph of Melbourne’s City Square, following the dismissal of Gough Whitlam, is cramped and creates a sense of sweaty-palmed claustrophobia through sheer volume.
[Ellis’] body of work ultimately has a deliberate social function: the documentation of an awkward, often ugly nation and its restless political body.
The cumulative effect of these collected photographs, ultimately, is one of exhaustion: is there no interiority to Australian life? Volume overwhelms. Ellis’ estate proudly names him as the ‘most prolific’ of Australia’s social documentarians, and says he left behind half a million negatives. Similarly, a recent press release announcing State Library Victoria’s acquisition of over 60,000 of Ellis’ images plainly states that he was ‘the social documentarian of an era’.
It’s a head-scratcher of a line, but it has its origins in the curatorial ambitions of Decade and the tireless work of his estate: to position Ellis as the central figure of Australian photography in the 1970s. This, of course, is plainly untrue. Photography is an art form of plurality, and Sue Ford, Carol Jerrems, Juno Gemes, Mervyn Bishop, among others, were doing just as important work. But, perhaps, Ellis, by design, was built to overshadow other figures. His body of work was one of extreme volume, so there is something of a feeling of definitiveness in these books, working towards domination – but such is the domineering nature of the extrovert.
Social documentary photography stands quite apart from standard, straightforward portraiture. It has more to do with what Janet Malcolm usefully termed ‘action’ photography – a kind of quick-shutter street photography associated with Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, Stephen Shore and, to a certain extent, Diane Arbus – all of whom seemed to be working towards some kind of national survey of an America ascendant. In her essay Two Roads, One Destination, Malcom takes aim at Frank – whose cornerstone photobook The Americans Ellis’ generation were surely fixated with – and finds a critical error in the reading of his work:
Frank has been overvalued as a social critic and undervalued as a photographic innovator, for what he revealed was not something about America but about photography… he grasped that the camera is equipped as no other medium is to show us things in their worst possible aspect. The camera’s profound misanthropy, its willingness to go to unpleasant places where no one wants to venture, its nasty preference for precisely those facets of our nature that we most wish to disown.
Ellis is at his best when he is inclusive, but he is perhaps no better than when he is inclusive of ugliness. His is a purposeful unsightliness – not necessarily produced in a mean-spirited manner, as in the snark and snide eye of British-born Martin Parr (who, owing an obvious debt to Ellis, titled a book Life’s A Beach – after touring the world, it became an exhibition at Bondi Pavillion in 2015). In an attempt to document the thick, stocky middle of the country, Ellis does not let anyone off. His ideal of beauty even has an edge of ugly.
In Decadent, however, Ellis’ canvas shrinks as he becomes more enamoured with erotics and an overly enthusiastic embrace of colour comes into play. There is none of the subtlety or political nuance of Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. What Goldin understood was that the documentation of evolving sexual politics required either a personal connection, or, at least, an affectation of that proximity. Ellis seemed to work better in the company of strangers. He was quoted as saying ‘photography legitimises my voyeuristic tendencies,’ which was to reduce his career into a pursuit for the pleasure principle. It would be easy to put this down to the 1980s as an era – to give into the cliché of it being the decade of excess. For Ellis, it is as if he got stuck in the clubs, and stayed at the party too long.
Ellis’ canvas shrinks as he becomes more enamoured with erotics and an overly enthusiastic embrace of colour…[it’s as if he] stayed at the party too long.
In a recent Guardian interactive feature discussing Ellis’s legacy, the National Gallery of Australia’s photography curator Shaune Lakin debated Ellis’s status as a social documentarian photographer:
I’m not sure that he is, because for me social documentary photography is photography that is really concerned with what society looks like, and how it might be kind of managed or thought about. For me, he is really just a photographer who is interested in producing pictures of people in social environments. There is no political agenda to the work, and I think that is really valuable and really important.
Why do fine-art curators seem so quick to downplay political purpose in photography? To push the work towards a welcoming mainstream? Ellis’s eye should surely be credited with some kind of urge towards the democratic in this country. Lakin, and countless others in the arts and media spheres, single out Ellis’s At the Pub, Brisbane (1982) as a favourite. It shows a burly, bearded man holding a tiny beer in a Brisbane bar as he converses with a mate – the humour of the photograph located in the juxtaposition of the tiny glass in proportion to the man. The photograph seems to indicate a nostalgia for an Australia lost – the Australia where you could wear sandals and shorts in the back of a bar (has that option really been denied us?) – but its nostalgia is politically inert.
To renounce Ellis’ position as a social documentarian is to remove a great deal of his political agency. One could demote him to a street photographer, but street photography is a democratic art in itself; admission to be photographed should be free. Ellis is a great street photographer – his sociability and enthusiasm cut through in a series of photographs detailing Kings Cross in the 1970s – but that’s beside the point. The photographs in Decade are obsessed with literal outward transcriptions of political expression – graffiti, protest placards, shop signs, text-based tattoos – as if the human element needs to be made explicit, or readable (Ellis, indeed, published three books dedicated to graffiti in Australia). They suggest the idea that political thought must be made public to be truly tested.
To renounce Ellis’ position as a social documentarian is to remove a great deal of his political agency.
Perhaps, as is the inherent risk whenever one attempts to think about photography, we are simply looking at it the wrong way. In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes writes: ‘the age of photography corresponds precisely to the explosion of the private into the public, or rather the creation of a new social value, which is the publicity of the private.’ This goes straight to the very being of Rennie Ellis’s art; his witnessing of Australia’s radical defining of itself in public is both an act of documenting the moment, but also a direct effort to provoke it in the first place.
In his introduction to Decade, the late filmmaker and photographer Paul Cox relates a telling story. Cox had put two large prints of nudes in the front window of his photography gallery – provoking visits from the Vice squad – which ended in a mild mannered driver becoming distracted, and careening into the window. Ellis was the first on the scene, taking photographs, and Cox wondered how he even knew the incident had taken place. Ellis had a natural intuition to the public display of private desires – how could he not be at such a scene? That driving obsession is what, ultimately, defines Ellis and, in turn, defines our public social values. He is coaxing a particular vision, and version, of Australia out into the open; looking back towards a liberationist Australia, one that had not yet rotted into culture wars and hardcore neoliberalism.
It is no easy task to trace where Ellis’ legacy lies today. There is something about social documentary photography that resists having lasting value outside of the moment – which is, in fact, its exact value. The young photographers taking Ellis’ place can be found at music festivals, bars and events, earning money documenting nightlife; it is difficult to sift through in real time. A number of emerging publications help with some of this work – places like Swampland, a non-fiction magazine dedicated to music coverage, and Liminal, an incredible publication which interviews emerging Asian-Australian creatives – coupling literary output with carefully curated matching photographs (Ellis, after all, started out as a writer himself).
The writer-photographer double act might point towards the successors of the 1970s social documentarians; politically aware progressives, who do not leave aesthetics out of the picture. In a recent portrait interview for VICE (a publication Ellis would have jumped at, one assumes), the young Australian photographer-writer Jonno Revanche published a series of portraits of Dylan Voller. The young Indigenous activist was, of course, the subject of another photograph that, in 2016, tore through Australia’s fragile social fabric. Blinded by a spit hood and strapped to a chair by prison officers, the shot of Voller was eerily reminiscent of the evidence from Abu Ghraib. Revanche photographs Voller as a free man, and their use of natural light falling on Voller’s slender figure is a relief, out to counter that infamous shot. It is like an exhalation.
The most exciting prospect is Voller’s stated intention to himself explore photography as a form. In the VICE interview he muses, ‘I find it hard to articulate myself, but a picture can say what words can’t.’ Imagine what those eyes will see, and show us in turn? It’s hard to think of a figure in recent Australian political history who has been more looked at than Voller. We have objected him to being a vision; one that taught us a political lesson, but what we will learn when Voller is the documenter, not the documented? Rennie Ellis, and his many contemporaries, would hopefully embrace such a progression – actively capturing political emergences requires making room for them too.