May 21: The term ‘society photographer’ conjures up images of expensively dressed glitterati at garden parties, or weddings photos of the rich and famous. It is time to reconsider the meaning of the label and its importance as a genre.
Mossgreen Gallery, 36-40 Queen Street, Woollahra 2025, continues a show today of Rennie Ellis‘s photographs; Kings Cross 1970-1971: Rennie Ellis until 2 June 2017. Meanwhile ‘social photography’ of a very different kind continues until the 2nd of July at the Turbine Gallery at Casula Powerhouse Art Centre, 1 Powerhouse Road, Casula NSW 2170. There Jo Dunlop‘s show, Freetown Fashpack is on tour from Bega Valley Regional Gallery.
Read anything about Ellis (1940 – 2003), a photographer and author, or dig out his photographs, and you will find him often referred to as a society photographer. His pictures of parties, openings, launches and other events certainly appeared in the back pages of Ragtimes and POL, that it was one way that he made his living until 1982, when his photobooks really took off.
For him ‘society’ had a much broader meaning, better conjoined with the word documentary, as in ‘social documentarian’. But that is a term attached to the worthies of photography like Jacob Riis and W. Eugene Smith. It conveys nothing of the fun that beams from the faces in so many in his pictures, people at the races and the footy, beach, and in the pub, nightclub or cafe. Because he produced books with titles like Life’s a beach, Life’s a beer, Life’s a ball, Life’s a parade, Up front: funny, filthy, philosophical advice from the T-shirt and No standing, only dancing, are we to take him seriously.
Though I cannot say he was more than an acquaintance, nevertheless he was a big presence in the lives of my photographer friends and myself. He lived not far from Prahran College where we studied photography at 34 Raleigh Street Windsor, in a house he purchased in 1973, crammed amongst other weatherboards in the tiny back streets and with a backyard view of high-rise Housing Commission flats.
The year before he had taken up management of Brummels Gallery, upstairs of the cafe of the same name. In the 50s it had shown immigrant modernist painters but had flagged in the late sixties. Ellis made of it one of only two dedicated photography galleries in Melbourne. It beat The Photographers Gallery, opening a little later just around the corner in Punt Road South Yarra, to be Australia’s first not-for-profit photography gallery, and it was there that as students we encountered Rennie Ellis in person and also the cutting edge work that he showed by great photographers including David Moore, Wesley Stacey, Robert Ashton, Ponch Hawkes, Sue Ford, George Gittoes, John Williams, Ian Dodd, Jon Rhodes and international photographers, Sarah Moon and Charles Gatewood. And an encounter it certainly was; he was a larger-than-life character cast from the same mould as other larrikin Australian photojournalists David Moore, David Beal and Jeff Carter and countless numbers of our press photographers, and he was a party animal whose openings were legend; they often rocked on around to his house.
The National Library of Australia credits Ellis with 23 books, but it is the one he made with Wes Stacey, Kings Cross Sydney: A Personal Look at the Cross (1971) that was formative.
Ellis has been identified by Manuela Furci, William Yang and Robert McFarlane in the survey Decadent : 1980-2000 / Rennie Ellis ; [foreword ] as a photographer in search of hedonism. Significantly, that book does not look back as far as the Kings Cross essay, and it is there that we can find discover his motivations for later images.
To walk out the door with the intention to photograph people as Ellis did almost every day (the NLA lists 12,400 of his photographs in their collection), is to enter the unknown, an adventure punctuated by human encounters. While Ellis is attracted to the densest and most excited congregations of people and it is there that he finds both popular culture, but also the demimonde beneath.
The cover of Kings Cross Sydney promises glitz and glam, but inside it rubs thin. The gorgeous gal on the cover turns out to be Carlotta, the ‘Queen of the Cross’, a drag queen who as one of the original cast members of the Cross’s Les Girls cabaret show, became one of the country’s most famous transgender women. Abe Saffron, known as ‘Mr Sin’, who owned many of the nightclubs and strip joints in the Cross had purpose-built the venue in which Les Girls performed nightly.
Ellis captures Carlotta at a point of transformation between shows. The paraphernalia on her 60s quilt-pattern laminex dressing table tells the story more clearly than her vamping expression; a spoon, a pile of banknotes, a half-empty flagon of McWilliams Riesling which serves as a wig stand, and a portrait of a man with thinning hair in a tie who bears a striking resemblance to Carlotta (perhaps her father?). The doubled plastic bottle of Kao-Cos foundation gives away the fact that we are looking into a mirror on which are lipsticked words that we can assemble into “Carlotta is a piss-pot…the Star…the Greek”.
A man who is probably much like Carlotta’s boss appears in an image which ingeniously exploits all the cliches of the strip-club scene; the hideously toothy grimace under the walrus moustache of the MC in his butterfly bow-tie and mutton-chops, the bored, weary expression of the dancer in her leopard-skin underclothes pulling off her top, echoing in a much less enthusiastic manner poses of the pin-ups. Ellis’s artfulness and presence of mind in rubbing these two faces together is genius, bracketed as they are by the tawdry glare of fluorescent light that for the average photographer would have been hell to work around, but which for Ellis are a flourish.
His capacity to expose the bitter disillusion beneath the glitter produces poignant images of the hard lives of these ‘entertainers’ that have little more value for their audiences than the trinkets in the souvenir shop that this stripper passes as she walks between venues.
The layout of the book crushes its photographs together in a riot of impressions from shooting that ranged through the clubs and outside onto the main strip and amongst the terrace-houses of the back streets to capture a whole gamut of social groups and interactions. Hippies mix it with sleazy ‘businessmen’ and American sailors on shore leave, and bikies and drug dealers occupy the same street as old matrons with their pekinese dog and children with their shopping mums. Ellis commented;
While Kings Cross had a racy reputation for sex, drugs and decadence, it was also a community for the elderly and the ordinary. Some of these residents met regularly in the park at the heart of the Cross where they walked their dogs and exchanged gossip, oblivious, it seemed, to all but their own world.
Ellis captures the unlikely groupings one might encounter on the Cross which is only ten minutes walk from Rushcutters Bay, hence the bare feet, shorts and bathers meeting the suit here on the warm pavement accompanied by the reek of cigar, car exhaust and the tinny music that emanates from the portable cassette player.
He never misses the opportunity to use a built-in caption; witness the newspaper screamer ‘BRIBES SCANDAL’, signwriting announcing ‘GOLDEN ORCHID STRIP CLUB’ or the tattooed swastika.
Ellis had started photographing only after leaving advertising to travel the world in 1963, when he bought a tiny Braun Paxette rangefinder camera, but didn’t become a professional until leaving behind a successful career as a copywriter and advertising man, and contributing to travel magazine Walkabout. He distributed his images through Scoopix Photo Library, which he formed in 1974, located at his studio in Prahran. He later became the exclusive Australian agent for New York’s Black Star photos, correspondent and editor in Melbourne for Australian Playboy (1980-90) and Melbourne correspondent and photographer for Mode Magazine (1983-c.1995).
Ellis’ photographs have been widely exhibited in Australia and overseas and his work has been acquired by various collections including France’s Bibliotheque National, the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Australian Embassy in Beijing, the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Victoria, National Portrait Gallery, Monash Gallery of Art, State Library of Victoria, State Library of NSW, National Library of Australia and private collections in Australia, UK and USA.
As well as regular exhibitions like this one he Rennie Ellis Photographic Archive is being handled by Manuela Furci, his personal assistant for 10 years, who has organised the The Rennie Ellis Show in partnership with Monash Gallery of Art with support from the Victorian Government through Arts Victoria which has so far toured 12 December 2014 – 29 January 2017 to regional galleries Shepparton Art Museum, Horsham Regional Art Gallery, Lismore Regional Gallery, New England Regional Art Museum (Neram) and the Art Gallery Of Ballarat.
For a truly ripper, complete and thorough survey of all that was Kings Cross, much more detailed than I can manage here in a post written in a day, see Martyn Jolley’s blog.
Jo Dunlop is from Sydney, Australia (the city surrounding Kings Cross). She is an aid worker who went with UNICEF in 2011 into the West African country Sierra Leone responding to the impact Sierra of Leone’s bloody civil war on the health of the country’s people. She was posted to the capital, Freetown, to assist in a maternal health project. She found she had to deal with the high mortality rate frustratingly due often to preventable diseases.
But what she also discovered was home-grown fashion, a riot of colour completely contrary to the depressing mortality statistics.
Their colour and flamboyance whacks you in the face. Sitting in an office with women wearing head wraps the size of a wedding cake and men in two-piece pyjama style suits with a matching fez was such a novelty
These were a people who knew how to dress, and that the way to dress was to be proud, age no object:
I just want to look decent and respectable, the glasses are good though. Many people have paid me a compliment for them but this is the first time anyone has taken my photo. Local councillor Saidu Kamara.
Dunlop became entranced, so much so that she started a blog in the spirit of street fashion blogs proliferating in First World countries; Freetown Fashpack, which featured people on the street with brief descriptions gushing the overblown hyperbole one has come to expect in fashion mags. But there was a difference. This was style without cash. Says Dunlop:
Almost all…have very little disposable income but they have an attitude and confidence that transcends their bank balance
In 2014 a crisis came when the World Health Organisation declared a state of emergency as Ebola swept Sierra Leone and health projects were suspended to concentrate efforts on the outbreak. By July 11, 2014 the first case was reported in the capital of Sierra Leone, Freetown, however the person had traveled to the capital from another area of the country. Freetown Doctor Olivette Buck fell ill and died from Ebola on 14 September 2014. Dunlop chose to stay in Freetown and work in a hospital supporting a team of frontline health staff who were burying up to 30 bodies a day, only to see friends and local personalities she had come to know through her blog devastated as the disease and death spread. By 23 September, of 91 health workers infected with Ebola 61 had died, and 129 cases with 95 deaths by 19 October. On 6 November 2014 the capital city reported 115 cases in the previous week alone. Food shortages and aggressive quarantines were reported to be making the situation worse and it was not until November 2015 that the country was declared Ebola-free.
Such lethal statistics lend perspective to Dunlop’s inspired blogging:
The streets are teeming with some of the most resourceful, brave and outrageous fashion decisions ever made. In a country so commonly associated with civil war and blood diamonds and most recently Ebola, I felt inspired to show a different side to Sierra Leone and reveal an unlikely fashion hotspot.
While Jo Dunlop’s work must give her little time, and understanding that she is ‘shooting from the hip’ and in a hurry, it is her subjects’ confident engagement with her camera and the way she chooses such eye-popping backgrounds that indicate her talent as a photographer.
FREETOWN FASHPACK has since been featured in The Guardian, The New York Times and in Australia in a Dateline documentary on SBS, then in 2015 ABC ARTS commissioned an 8 part web series which premiered in March 2016. Footage from this series accompanies this Bega Valley Regional Gallery tour of 15 larger than life photographic portraits from the FREETOWN FASHPACK archive.
To look back at Rennie Ellis’s imagery of Kings Cross is to see his awareness of street fashion – ordinary people presenting themselves to the world – embedded in his documentary images and to realise what and how big ‘society photography’ really is.