Extracted from Decadent 1980-2000
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 an 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’s 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.
Manuela Furci is the director of the Rennie Ellis Photographic Archive.
Decadent 1980-2000 (Hardie Grant) RRP $69.95