“Many of us found our voices in the 70s.” writes filmmaker and photographer Paul Cox, in his introduction to Decade: 1970-1980. “The atmosphere was kind, non-commercial and forgiving. Australia was on the brink of developing its own identity, its own spirit… Rennie furiously snapped at the emerging bohemian heart of this new Australia.”
The latest collection of images to be released from the vast half-million strong archive of Australian social and documentary photographer Rennie Ellis, Decade 1970 – 1980 is a hardcover photography book that serves as a valuable and genuinely unique window into all walks of Australian life in the 1970s.
Drawn from a selection originally made by Ellis himself for a book that remained unpublished, Decade cements Ellis’ importance in capturing Australian life and recording the cultural, sub-cultural and political landscape at a time of emerging freedom, hedonism and change.
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Letâs Boogie, Silvers Night Club, Melbourne 1980
There’s a charming lack of sophistication and self-awareness in these images, which, be it in a strip club, nightclub, political protest or art gallery, were often taken only thanks to Ellis’ ability to slip right in and go unnoticed. As Cox writes in his introduction, “it was as though he wasn’t there…”.
From disco to punk, women’s liberation to gay rights, Vietnam war rallies to Aboriginal rights marches and the blossoming of Melbourne and Sydney’s arts, film, fashion and nightlife scenes, Ellis’ photographs are candid, honest, humourous, compassionate and without judgement.
Edited by photographer Stephen Dupont, the book’s images are complemented by introduction and essays by Cox along with Susan van Wyk, Senior Curator of Photography at the NGV.
Below is a small extract of Cox’ essay.
Dino Ferrari, Toorak Road 1976
“Many of us found our voices in the 70s. The atmosphere was kind, non-commercial and forgiving. Australia was on the brink of developing its own identity, its own spirit. Nobody told you what to do, where to go. We were allowed to speak, to tell our stories without compromise. The full digitalisation of the planet hadn’t started yet. We had not yet entertained the concept of privatisation. The word ‘consumer’ was rarely used; it made people feel uneasy.
People were still called people.
It was a wild time full of wine, women and song. Rennie furiously snapped at the emerging bohemian heart of this new Australia. He dug into the underbelly of Australian life with a vengeance; he knew that what he was doing was important. The mirror he held up to Australian society had honesty in its reflection, as well as a deep understanding and respect for all creatures great and small. He understood that people would do anything, no matter how absurd, to avoid facing their own souls. He humoured his subjects, kept a straight face and always tried to expose deeper layers. Of course, his photography required a fair degree of opportunism—yet somehow he was not an opportunist.
There are quite a few photographs in this book that make you wonder how Rennie got away with it. He looked so innocent! He was an amateur, not a photographer … this wasn’t his camera … he was ‘holding it for a friend’ … ‘I’m taking a few quick shots just to have a record.’ He wasn’t really taking photographs; in fact, it was as though he wasn’t there…
Cheeky, fearless and smart, Rennie went his own way. Why should he care about composition, form, shape and light? His interests lay elsewhere; he had a function; he was on a mission. The Whitlam years and all the dramas surrounding them shaped this country more than any other time in its history. Rennie documented it truthfully and obsessively.
Later—much later—I discovered Rennie’s generosity of spirit, his originality and sense of fun, his compassion and artistry.
He was the recorder of hope.”
Rennie with camera 1974 © Bob Bourne
Rennie Ellis: Decade 1970 – 1980
Out now through Hardie Grant, $59.95
By Matt Hurst