Unaccustomed as I am to making introductions, we thought it proper on this very special occasion to make an exception to that general rule. As many may already know, April 2014 marks the 10th Anniversary of Trouble magazine, and to celebrate that fact we are proud and honoured to bring you our first XT (extra Trouble) supplement magazine.
This inaugural issue of XT is dedicated to the extraordinary photography of Rennie Ellis (1940-2003), to hail the release of the newest collection of his work, Decadent 1980-2000, through Hardie Grant Books, and its companion exhibition at Monash Gallery of Art, The Rennie Ellis Show (3 April – 8 June). Decadent explores the rise of the hedonism that we now associate with the 1980s, and which Ellis was so uniquely positioned to capture with trademark depth and insight. Ellis’ humanistic approach to his subjects, combined with an eye for intimate detail, resulted in racy and voyeuristic works that capture a society seeming to revel in its abandonment of the politically charged 1970s. In today’s post-Henson era, these captured moments offer tantalising and intimate access to an Australia that is, sadly, now almost out of reach.
There will be many more of these special supplements to accompany future issues of Trouble. In the meantime we hope you enjoy this brief foray into the decadent and seductive world of Rennie Ellis.
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’, a man, ‘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 brought him face to face with the excesses of hedonism. Intuitively, Rennie was committed to capturing 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. 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. Rennie 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’, he sought to ‘show people how the other half lives’.
Selecting the images for Decadent was extremely challenging. Unlike Decadent’s companion book, Decade, there was no dummy manuscript, no blueprint of how Rennie envisaged the book, left behind after his death to guide us with our selection. How could we ensure the images we chose would be those that Rennie would have selected, had he still been alive?
There were clues among surviving exhibition prints and his Life’s a… series of books – Life’s a Beach, Life’s a Ball, Life’s a Beer and Life’s a Parade — published in the eighties and nineties. Rennie 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’s on-going passion for exploring the erotic implications of the female nude led to one of his final projects: documenting Melbourne’s famous strip club, Maxine’s. Over a period of three years, Ellis was given complete 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 women.
Since establishing the Rennie Ellis Photographic Archive in 2004, we have realised many of Rennie’s dreams, holding exhibitions at major Australian public galleries and publishing Decade, a book he considered one of the most important projects he had ever undertaken (despite this, its manuscript languished as a mere prototype from 1979 until his death in 2003). We also honoured his wish, stated in his will, to entrust a large portion of his oeuvre to the State Library of Victoria, which now holds the most complete collection of Rennie Ellis photographs in the world. And now, with the publication of Decadent, we have created a book that reveals not only our nation at play, but also the fun loving, non-judgmental spirit of Rennie, whose childlike curiosity led him to enter and expose 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’s reputation as one of Australia’s most daring, prolific and insightful social chroniclers – one whose photographs will continue to taunt, titillate and tickle our collective fantasies for years to come.
Director, Rennie Ellis Photographic Archive
Manuela Furci is the Director of the Rennie Ellis Photographic Archive and was Rennie Ellis’s personal assistant from the mid 80s to the early 90s. Manuela accompanied Rennie to many of the wild parties that he documented and witnessed the excesses of hedonism and indulgences of wealth in the eighties. With the support of Ellis’s widow, Kerry Oldfield Ellis, Manuela established the Archive in 2004 and over the past decade has showcased exhibitions nationally including a major retrospective of Ellis’s work at the National Gallery of Victoria. Manuela Furci is the editor of the Rennie Ellis book Decade: 1970-1980 and it’s newly released companion publication, Decadent: 1980-2000. Manuela is pictured above, dancing on the table, in Private Party, Windsor 1985, from Life’s a Ball by Rennie Ellis.
All images © Rennie Ellis Photographic Archive. Artist site: rennieellis.com.au
All text and images extracted from Decadent 1980-2000 by Rennie Ellis (Hardie Grant) RRP $69.95 available at hardiegrant.com.au and all good bookstores. A companion exhibition at Monash Gallery of Art, The Rennie Ellis Show, runs from 3 April – 8 June 2014 – mga.org.au SPECIAL THANKS: Manuela Furci & Kerry Oldfield Ellis, Directors Rennie Ellis Photographic Archive, Hardie Grant, Kasi Collins.