‘Rennie Ellis: Aussies All’, review in Photofile 78, pp71-72, 2006
National Portrait Gallery, Commonwealth Place
21 April – 27 August 2006
Nobody would seriously argue that Rennie Ellis was a great photographer. His photographs had neither a sophisticated visual wit, nor a clear-eyed charm. The best ones were unabashedly pervy pictures of people who were, by and large, also unabashedly flaunting themselves. Ellis may not have been a great photographer, but he was clearly a great character, with an endless appetite for people and parties. He and his camera cheerfully blammed their way through most of the brash characters and glitzy media events of the seventies, eighties and nineties. He shot at the sporting spectacles of yobbos, the nightclubs of sub-cultural habitués, and the kitsch homes of freshly minted millionaires. He loved subjects who flaunted their money and sexuality, the twin lenses through which he saw Australia. He delivered his best shots from sites of ostentatious display — the beach or the Melbournne Cup — and his best subjects were sports stars or business moguls who, pumped with their own success, willingly and openly burlesqued themselves for his camera.
During his career Ellis published a remarkable ten books about Australia, beginning with the seminal Kings Cross Sydney, 1971, produced with Wesley Stacey. That publication continued the long tradition of Australiana picture books, but orientated it away from the previous nationalistic trope of homogenous equality in a rural landscape, towards an acknowledgement of various distinct urban subcultures whose gritty co-existence was nonetheless still quintessential to an Australian egalitarianism. However, as a photographer, Ellis was to become most closely identified with his two later books, the mega-selling Life’s a Beach, 1983, and Life’s Still a Beach, 1998, which celebrated the nation with numerous long-shots of Australian tits and bums in bikinis. Now, three years after his death, this show, although primarily designed to feed Baby-Boomer nostalgia, deserves credit for bringing back to our attention many of the other portraits Ellis took for magazines like Playboy and Who Weekly. The National Portrait Gallery has also accompanied the portraits with their usual useful biographical captions, which sometimes speak volumes about their subjects in just 150 words.
Ellis styled himself as an egalitarian photographer, in his view all Aussies had an equal claim to this country’s fabulously open lifestyle. But, ironically, what he has most powerfully bequeathed to us is an image of the crass venality of so many Aussies, before their inevitable downfall and expulsion from the country’s carnival. Thus we can savour as a parable of hubris the ridiculous set-up shot from 1979 of Derryn Hinch wallowing in newspaper-strewn bed with a Playboy playmate, like a hirsute toad-prince in a swamp of tabloid journalism. On the other hand, if he was in the right place at the right time, Ellis was occasionally able to deliver quite complex and genuinely exciting images, such as the frieze of classic football types on either side of Ron Barassi, frozen whilst hysterically launching themselves into the air at the cue of a decisive try by their team.