Iconic images: Australia’s larrikin days

By Anthony Lock | December 24, 2011

The work of iconic Australian photographer, Rennie Ellis, documents a fancy-free time in the country’s past.

IN A TIME BEFORE digital cameras made photography so accessible, Rennie Ellis was photographing iconic scenes of Australia’s social culture.

Lauded as one of Australia’s greatest photographers, Rennie, who died in 1994, captured everyday Australian life in the 70s and 80s. His reportage is a snapshot of Aussie life.

“Rennie introduced a certain kind of candid shot where his presence coloured the way the picture was taken,” says Robert McFarlane, a contemporary of Ellis’ and photography critic for the Sydney Morning Herald. “Rennie was an affectionate, inclusive person, very smart, but he didn’t parade his intelligence, and he treated everyone the same. [Subjects] all got his charisma and responded to it.”

Born in Melbourne in 1940, Rennie worked originally in advertising, but became a freelance photographer in 1969. He passed away unexpectedly in 2003, and the mass of more than 500,000 unreleased photographs he took over his four decades is now being privately catalogued in the Rennie Ellis Photographic Archive.

Australian beach culture

In 1971, Rennie self-published his first work he created with fellow photographer Wesley Stacy on the ‘scene’ in King’s Cross. Soon after, his images appeared in publications as diverse as Playboy, Mode, Pol, The Bulletin and Lonely Planet.

The next year, he opened Australia’s first privately run photographic gallery (The Brummels Gallery of Photography), showcasing the works of Australian photographers, all the while continuing to take his camera to all the ‘in’ parties in Melbourne up until his last days.

He published 17 books on topics as varied as sports crowds to graffiti, and the life of children in Bali. He also became a presenter for the television program Looking Good, a lifestyle show on the Nine Network in the 1990s. His 1983 book Life’s a Beach sold more than 30,000 copies.

“He did irony. People [in his images] are often juxtaposed to emphasise what they are doing or the opposite,” Robert says.

One of Rennie’s more famous photographs features Robert McGhie on AFL cup during a break in play. “He’s clearly an athlete and having a cigarette. Rennie picked up on that. He had an accepting eye; he just thought, ‘Well, this is part of the whole tapestry of Australian life”.

Capturing life’s moments in pictures

It is the quality of Rennie’s work that he took photographs of absurdities and unusual occurrences, and Robert suggests this is why his work became so popular.

“‘Irreverent’ is important in describing his work”, Robert says. “Rennie locked onto candidly observing absurdities and juxtapositions. In that sense he was fearless and quite unique; whereas, others would ask, he would just do it”.

“Why would a man be at a social gathering where everyone’s dressed casually and he’s dressed like he’s going to a marathon?” says Robert, laughing at one of Rennie’s photos. “Rennie thinks, ‘Well, that’s part of life’”.

“It’s so important that we have this work. Rennie was a wonderful documenter of a change that was occurring across of Australia. He could feel the change that was occurring socially.

That’s why his pictures are so important: they document the change in Australia,” Robert says.

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