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Capturing an Australia in transition

Rennie Ellis was a visionary in an emerging arts culture.

Many of us found our voices in the 1970s. The atmosphere was kind, non-commercial and forgiving. Australia was on the brink of developing its own identity, its own spirit.

Nobody told you what to do, where to go. We were allowed to speak, to tell our stories without compromise. The full digitalisation of the planet hadn't started yet. We had not yet entertained the concept of privatisation. The word ''consumer'' was rarely used; it made people feel uneasy.

People were still called people.

It was a wild time full of wine, women and song. Rennie Ellis furiously snapped at the emerging bohemian heart of this new Australia. He dug into the underbelly of Australian life with a vengeance; he knew that what he was doing was important. The mirror he held up to Australian society had honesty in its reflection, as well as a deep understanding and respect for all creatures, great and small. He understood that people would do anything, no matter how absurd, to avoid facing their own souls. He humoured his subjects, kept a straight face and always tried to expose deeper layers. Of course, his photography required a fair degree of opportunism - yet somehow he was not an opportunist.

There are quite a few of his photographs that make you wonder how Rennie got away with it. He looked so innocent! He was an amateur, not a photographer … this wasn't his camera … he was ''holding it for a friend'' … ''I'm taking a few quick shots just to have a record''. He wasn't really taking photographs; in fact, it was as though he wasn't there.

At the time, people like me thought that most of Rennie's photography was a little indulgent - and certainly expedient. We didn't take him too seriously. After all, I was a teacher of photography at Australia's own emerging Bauhaus, Prahran College of Advanced Education, perhaps the first art school that took photography seriously and where photography was respected like any of the other arts. My craft was deeply rooted in European sensibilities. Who was this Jack-of-all-trades, with his wide-angle lens and dangling flash equipment?


Cheeky, fearless and smart, Rennie went his own way. Why should he care about composition, form, shape and light? His interests lay elsewhere; he had a function; he was on a mission.

The Whitlam years and all the dramas surrounding them shaped this country more than any other. Rennie documented it truthfully and obsessively.

Later - much later - I discovered Rennie's generosity of spirit, his originality and sense of fun, his compassion and artistry.

He was the recorder of hope.

How did he actually make a living? I knew his private life was quite complicated. He wasn't home very often and most of his work was done on spec. I remember ringing him one day, only to have my call answered by someone offering ''Bali Tours''.

''Oh, I must have the wrong number.'' I hung up and rang again.

''Bali Tours and Rennie Ellis Photography.''

So he was branching out into the booming travel business! By the time we had finished our conversation, I was on the way to Bali.

A few months before his death I met Rennie in the street. It was extremely cold. He was photographing a group of shivering Hare Krishnas; he could've been one of them. We sat in a little cafe, and as the Krishna bells faded in the distance we talked about the digital revolution and the future of black-and-white photography. This was the first time in all those years that he had seemed rather depressed. He told me we had failed: failed to make the world a better place. Just that morning he had told someone who wished him ''a nice day'' that he had other plans, only to be met with bewilderment. He couldn't understand why his silly joke wasn't appreciated. It depressed him.

Rennie had no pretence about the arts. For this very reason, he was an original Australian artist. His death was a horrible misfortune.

There are not that many idiosyncratic, daring and courageous recorders of our lives - people who hold up the mirror and make us stop for a moment before telling us to proceed with caution, with more care, respect and love.

The only proof of our lives is the love we leave behind. Rennie's huge wealth of photographs is about love and the beauty of being. He was a remarkable lover of life.

After his death, I put a picture of a smiling Rennie on our refrigerator. The magnet that holds it has a Salvador Dali quote: ''The only difference between me and a madman is that I'm not mad.''

Greetings, wherever you are, dear Rennie. Your photographs have survived the storm and are still with us, well preserved, in this wonderful book. They show the world a special way of feeling and touching, of loving a stranger. The picture of you is still magnetised in the same position on my fridge. It will be there for many centuries to come.