Following the release of Decade: 1970-1980 in 2013, Decadent 1980-2000 is an equally eye opening, heart-warming and unashamedly candid collection of photographs taken by Australian social photographer Rennie Ellis during the 1980s and 1990s .
Drawn from the Rennie Ellis Photographic Archive and the collection of the State Library of Victoria, Decadent further showcases Ellis’ absolutely unique contribution to Australian photography, both as an art form and as an invaluable documenter of our social history.
At the Pub, Brisbane 1982
As with his work in the 1970s, Decadent captures all facets of Australian society with an honest, humourous and voyeuristic eye. Whether at the beach or in a nightclub, at a protest or at the Melbourne Cup, the subjects in Ellis’ photos are captured without awareness of the photographer’s presence. His images are a direct window into the fun, extroversion, freedom and hedonism that we now associate with the 1980s.
Mr. Muscleman, Albert Park Beach, 1986
Fully Equipped, Albert Park Beach, 1981
In her forward, Manuela Furci, director of the Rennie Ellis Photographic Archive writes that in selecting images for Decadent from Ellis’ immensely vast catalogue of images, the book presents a body of work that “that reveals not only our nation at play, but also the fun-loving, non-judgemental spirit of Rennie, whose childlike curiousity led him to enter and expose these once-hidden realms…”
Fantasy Ball, Melbourne, 2000
The book solidifies Ellis as one of Australia’s most important chroniclers of the 1970s, 80s and 90s, from high society and celebrity to the seedy and sordid, with wonderful sprinklings of the ‘everyday’.
100th Anniversary Party, Sunbury, 1983
The following is full forward from Manuela Furci, director of the Rennie Ellis Photographic Archive:
Decadent is a unique visual document that examines the hedonistic society that emerged in Australia in the early Eighties, an era that came to define how Rennie Ellis saw himself: ‘As an image junkie and compulsive photographer who delights in chronicling both popular culture and the demi-monde’ and who was, ‘intrigued by the quirkiness of human behaviour, especially when it ventures into the realms of the erotic, exotic and esoteric’.
When photographing, Ellis remembered entering what he later described as ‘a state of grace with chance’, using his camera as a key to unlock doors and cross the thresholds that bought him face to face with the excesses of hedonism. His non-judgmental, charismatic presence gave him an ‘access all-areas-pass’ to people and situations that might normally be outside his experience, allowing him to indulge in his own voyeurism. For Ellis, he felt a compulsion to: ‘Reveal the private and closed sides of life to a broader audience so they can be astounded and astonished’ by ‘holding a mirror image to society. I like trying to show people how the other half lives’. Intuitively Ellis was committed to capturing on film, moments in time that offered insights into the human condition. To achieve this intimacy he would become very much involved in the situation he was photographing rather than standing back as a dispassionate observer.
Selecting the images for Decadent was extremely challenging. Unlike Decadent’s companion book Decade, there was no ‘dummy book’—a blueprint of how Ellis envisaged the book—left behind after his death to guide us with our selection. How could we ensure images we chose would be those that Ellis himself would have selected had he been still alive?
There were tell-tale clues amongst surviving exhibition prints and his Life’s a… series books; Life’s a Beach, Life’s a Ball, Life’s a Beer and Life’s a Parade—all published in the 80s and 90s. Ellis writes of these books:
There is an element of eroticism (the tits and bums syndrome) in all of my books which is also indicative of my interests and priorities… My photography legitimises my voyeuristic tendencies.
Rennie Ellis’ on-going passion for exploring the erotic implications of the female nude led to one of his final projects undertaken before his death—documenting Melbourne’s famous strip club, Maxine’s. Over a period of three years, Ellis was given total access to the women who performed on stage, and at times for their own pleasure, backstage. ‘Maxine’s girls’ as they were known, strutted their stuff and teased the audience with provocative displays in shows entitled Sisters of Sleaze, Empress of Erotica and Lesbian nights. In many of Ellis’s images the all-male audience’s reaction reveals more to the viewer than the naked strippers.
Since establishing the Rennie Ellis Photographic Archive in 2004, we have realised many of Ellis’s dreams by showcasing exhibitions at major public galleries across Australia, and also publishing Decade—a book Rennie Ellis considered one of the most important projects he had ever undertaken. Yet Rennie’s ‘Decade’ manuscript languished as a mere ‘dummy book’ from 1979 until his death in 2003. We also honoured his wish, stated in his Will, by entrusting a large body of work into the custody of the State Library of Victoria who now hold the most complete collection of Rennie Ellis photographs in the world. And now with the publishing of Decadent, whose images span two decades, we have created a book not only revealing our nation at play but also the fun loving, non-judgmental spirit of Ellis, whose childlike curiosity led him to enter and reveal these once hidden realms of decadence.
I hope that we have done Rennie Ellis justice with our selection and that the photographs in this book not only ‘astound and astonish’ as he had intended, but also confirm Rennie Ellis as one of Australia’s most daring, prolific and insightful social chroniclers whose photographs will continue to taunt, titillate and tickle our collective fantasies for years to come.
Director, Rennie Ellis Photographic Archive
Rennie Ellis, 2001 (Image: Robert Ashton)
Rennie Ellis: Decadent
Out now through Hardie Grant, $69.95
By Matt Hurst