Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Rennie Ellis at Mossgreen

Mossgreen Gallery
10 February to 3 March 2012

Rennie Ellis Photographic Archive has kindly allowed us to reproduce Robert McFarlane's text for Ellis' upcoming exhibition at Mossgreen Gallery. Opens Friday 10 February 2012.

For the last four decades of the Twentieth Century, Rennie Ellis (1940-2003) was a deeply influential figure in Australian documentary photography who affectionately, and with unblinking honesty, drew our attention to the dreams and fables revealed in the observation of everyday lives. Ellis' unsentimental vision saw the profound changes then flowing through Australian society – and nothing drew his gaze more powerfully than the emergence of eroticism, or sometimes simply nudity – in public. Rennie Ellis didn’t only photograph women nude – sometimes men appeared in his pictures, impressive in their musculature - but never with the mythic power he would find in photographing the unclad forms of women.

There is one picture in this suite of images that suggests, beyond its narrative documentary strength, what women may have meant as subjects for the elegant, genial and always acutely observant presence that was Rennie Ellis. In “Spring Lunch 1992” thirteen men stand around a circular restaurant dinner table. They are dressed conservatively in business suits and ties and all gaze, except one, at an almost totally nude blonde woman sitting on a white table cloth in the middle of a beer bottle-strewn table. They seem bemused by the good luck that has propelled this beautiful young woman out of the kind of mythology that once created Botticelli’s “Venus” - onto their table – leaving her smiling like a mischievous mermaid found trapped in a fishing net. Ellis instinctively contrasts the perfection of the young woman’s form with the mundanity – even impotence – of the men’s stances as they seem helpless to do little more than marvel at her beauty – and its close proximity with the province of dreams.

The mythic power of women is also strongly implied in “Snake Woman, Kings Cross 1970-71”, the only photograph in which Ellis’s focus is capable of being deflected from sharply rendering female nudity, as his camera instead focuses on the flat, malevolent head of a python as the serpent tries to pull away from the dancer and toward Ellis.

Rennie Ellis also finds a counterpoint to women’s roles as erotic dancers in observations such as “Backstage Dressing Room, The Ritz, St Kilda 1977” where nudity, and by inference eroticism, are only incidental to this beautifully observed moment expressing the close fellowship women find when working together. Ellis’s pictures are present in this exhibition almost exclusively in black and white, a documentary medium that suits his direct, sometimes pungent observations well. There is, however, one impressive exception. By observing “My Bare Lady, The Ritz, St Kilda 1977” in colour, Ellis achieves an almost Degas-like delicacy, momentarily dismantling my preferences for his black and white images. In presenting “This is the show: Rennie Ellis”, Mossgreen Gallery offer us a vivid, revealing segment of the extraordinary archive created by Rennie Ellis, of which the National Gallery of Australia’s Senior Curator of Photography Gael Newton once said, “the record will speak for itself over time … as it (the archive) ages it will surprise us with its depth and significance.” Robert McFarlane.

Robert McFarlane's blog is http://www.ozphotoreview.blogspot.com.au/ and website: http://www.robertmcfarlanephotos.com

Rennie Ellis
Golden Orchid, Kings Cross 1970-71 1970-71
silver gelatin, selenium toned fibre based print
73.5 x 59.0 cm
courtesy of Rennie Ellis Photographic Archive

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