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Words by Phil Jarratt, photographs by Rennie Ellis
Light / Dark
In 1974, I was the editor-in-waiting of the Australian surfing magazine Tracks, then published out of an old shack at Whale Beach, north of Sydney. I was meant to be the editor then, but our publisher, Albert Falzon, had forgotten when he offered me the job that he had also offered it to Californian writer John Grissim, whom he’d met at the San Diego world titles two years earlier. Grissim had arrived to take up the offer for six months and, having quit my previous job, I was often left to twiddle my thumbs or go surfing.
One day, having surfed the Whale Beach wedge all morning, I had assumed my thumb-twiddling position at the Tracks office when a loud, jovial fellow lumbered up the stairs and introduced himself as “The Mex.” Although David “Mexican” Sumpter and I had never met, he was a fan of my writing and hired me on the spot to be his promotions man while he did a roadshow tour of his new surf film, On Any Morning, across Australia’s East Coast.
A few weeks later, after the final sold-out show in Melbourne, Mex handed me $250 in cash. He advised me to take it to Bali Easyrider Travel Service and give it all to the photojournalist Rennie Ellis, a partner in the business, in exchange for a month in Bali with a motorbike and accommodation chucked in. The ponytailed Rennie greeted me from the center of the messiest office I’d ever seen. He seemed to be operating from the floor, the adjacent desk too overloaded with piles of newspapers and magazines to squeeze behind. He managed to get me on to a Rip Curl staff trip leaving in a few days, and we repaired to the pub to build the foundations of a friendship that would endure for almost 30 years, until his untimely death in 2003.
Rennie and I became soul mates almost immediately, but he’d been a hero of mine for eight years before I met him. As a surf-crazed teenager, I devoured every issue of America’s Surfer and Australia’s Surfing World. In 1966, Surfing World published a series of travel articles called “Odyssey of a Surfer,” in which Rennie documented his adventures around the world with his Torquay surf buddy Peter Troy, which included surfing the recently discovered beaches of the Pays Basque in France, sleeping rough on the Left Bank in Paris, crewing on a transatlantic yacht voyage, hitchhiking across the United States, and working at a finishing school for young ladies in the Deep South. For me, that was the stuff of dreams. When the opportunity came for travel far and wide, I modeled the mix of surf, girls, and trouble on Rennie’s odyssey.
And then there we were, bro-in’ down in a Melbourne pub.
Born in Brighton on Melbourne’s bayside in 1940, Reynolds Mark Ellis was educated at the elite Brighton Grammar School and won a scholarship to Melbourne University. But in both his personal and professional life he was never going to tread a conventional path. He dabbled in advertising, selling spaces in Bob Evans’ Surfing World and cutting distribution deals for John Severson’s Surfer, before buying his first camera and heading off to see the world with Peter Troy in 1963.
While Troy was a committed surfer who would eventually travel to 140 countries and introduce surfing to several of them, Rennie was a lifesaver, a talented waterman, and a distance swimmer who never missed the annual Lorne Pier To Pub Swim. While he enjoyed a paddle and was a competent boardrider, what really drew him to surfing was the romance of its culture. In fact, romance was what drew Rennie to just about everything.
“You know,” he told me once, “I spend more time in strip clubs than in the surf.”
Through the end of the 1960s, he had developed a reputation as Melbourne’s leading society snapper, or “chronicler of the demi-monde,” as he liked to introduce himself. By the time I met him in 1974, he’d published a book about Kings Cross, Sydney’s notorious red-light district, controversially exhibited photos of hookers and strippers from the book, opened a photo gallery above a restaurant, and founded Australia’s first stock photography agency.
When you examine the body of his work from that era, some of it seems a little sleazy, but Rennie never was. He loved women and he loved the female form, but he had the happy knack of befriending people from all walks of life, and no one he photographed ever felt used or exploited.
Although he rarely took photos of people surfing, Rennie was totally fixated on beach culture, and during my Tracks years he would often meet me at surf contests to shoot the circus on the beach. The bikini blitz at the first running of the Stubbies Pro at Burleigh Heads in 1977 blew his mind, and inspired him to publish a book of bronzed bare bodies called Life’s a Beach. It was an instant best seller, and prompted Life’s a Beach II and Life’s Still a Beach.
In the 1980s, we started traveling together and working as a freelance team, which was always a lot of fun and a little work. In 1981, we made a short film called Pets in Paradise, in which we took a bevy of Penthouse Pets to Fiji. The less said about the trip the better, other than that from the sand cay where we were shooting nudes, we watched perfect waves peeling down a reef pass that became known as Cloudbreak, but never got there. Every year we covered the Melbourne Cup—a horse race, but really Australia’s biggest booze-up—for a fashion magazine. We convinced the Australian edition of Playboy to fund a feature article called “Europe on a Thousand Dollars a Day”—a chunk of change back then—and lolled around Lake Como, the Italian and French Rivieras, and Paris for weeks. The success of this audacious scam inspired Rennie to spend months pitching a two-year book project called Greatest Beaches of the World, but unfortunately he couldn’t find a gullible publisher.
Since he sold me my first trip, Rennie always saw himself as my Bali guide and guru. We traveled there often with our families, even preparing a little guidebook for kids, and eventually he talked me into buying land there with him. We had a plot by the river at Umalas, near Canggu, back when it was still an untouched village. But we always seemed to be too busy to oversee the building of the humble cluster of cabanas we envisioned. Back in those cowboy years, if you didn’t build and provide jobs, they’d rip up your lease and sell it again. There was no going to court. You just took it on the chin.
Umalas is full of expensive villas now, and the river is disgusting. But when I drive through that part of the island today, I often picture Rennie and myself in our declining years, sitting under some palms with a couple of cold Bintangs, talking story. It wasn’t to be.
Rennie married twice. First to model Carol Silk in the late 60s, with whom he had son Josh. Second to ballerina Kerry Oldfield in the late 80s, with whom he had daughter Sylvie. In the middle, he had a long relationship with Mish Pulling. My wife and I became friends with all three (once you were inside Rennie’s tent you never got out, nor wanted to), but we traveled the world with Rennie and Mish, and then with Rennie and Kerry. Rennie would have T-shirts printed up with the imaginary Spider Tours logo, and he’d wave a red flag as he herded us through airports. It was hilarious, but in fact I was the one who did most of the herding while Rennie’s diversions into bars and clubs looking for photogenic subjects played havoc on the rest of us.
I was christened Born Leader and he became Spiritual Barometer, Bjorn and Spiro for short, and the very mention of those names would turn a tense moment into a classic Rennie hoot. I’ve never traveled happily in groups before or since, but God, those times with Rennie were frustratingly fabulous.
Rennie would travel halfway around the world for a party, and expected you to do the same. I flew from my home near Biarritz to Melbourne for his 60th birthday in November of 2000, and he did the reverse trip in July of 2001 for my 50th. I was eternally grateful that my dear friend had made the effort, but I was alarmed to see the changes that half a year had wrought. It seemed the champagne that coursed through his veins had lost some of its fizz.
Another six months later, when we gathered as we always did to celebrate the New Year at a friend’s property near Crescent Head, his hearing had gone and, no longer the life of the party, he sat quietly at the dinner table looking a little confused. We had a sunset walk along the beach one evening, laughing about the good times and planning more. But I flew back to France a few days later, and the next time I saw him was when the world came to Melbourne to say goodbye at a remarkably joyful remembrance with more than 1,200 people overflowing Prahran Town Hall, just down the street from Rennie’s messy office.
The papers were full of it.
“A bit of a scallywag,” was how Fred Schepisi, a friend and film director who had flown in from New York, remembered him. “Always had a great spirit, always up for an adventure and something new.”
Poet, philosopher, and cartoonist Michael Leunig remembered him in verse:
Life’s a beach Said Rennie Ellis He let each picture tell us That the tide comes in
When I recall my long-gone friend, which I do often, I sometimes think about the diverse crowd that came to remember Rennie that day—the monde and the demi-monde, if you will, so many famous and infamous faces in the crowd. That was how he rolled, princes and paupers, often at the same table. The way he translated that fearless egalitarianism to his art is the true essence of his legacy.
Other times, I think about us high on ecstasy in a paddock near Bells Beach, middle-aged men dancing in the moonlight. I think about that because, whatever else he was, Rennie Ellis was always a very naughty boy.
Rennie was a disorganized ditherer much of the time, but the moment he ventured forth with his Pentax in hand he was like an infantryman with an M4 carbine. Except his mission was more likely to end in tears of laughter than the other kind. He was simply relentless and fearless in pursuit of the shot.
After Rennie’s death, journalist Peter Wilmoth wrote in The Melbourne Age: “Always looking at least ten years younger than he was, with his long, straggly hair, slightly unkempt beard and moustache, and loose-fitting bohemian wardrobe, Rennie was Melbourne’s eternally young omnipresent chronicler, always cheerful, always snapping, always looking for his next shot, a sense of mischief and restlessness mixed with a relentless optimism. Among a certain scene, it was said you’d only made it when Rennie Ellis came to your party with his camera.”
This was true enough, but it seems to me perhaps inadvertently dismissive of the social and artistic value of his work. Rennie published 17 books, was exhibited widely in Australia and around the world, and won many awards. His work has been acquired by France’s Bibliotheque National Library, Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs, the Australian Embassy in Beijing, the National Gallery of Australia, the National Gallery of Victoria, the National Portrait Gallery, the Monash Gallery of Art, the State Library of Victoria, the State Library of NSW, the National Library of Australia, and private collections in Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. (My own modest collection of Ellis prints includes a gaggle of groms at Burleigh Heads in the late 1970s. I was standing beside him when he took it, and I am looking at it above my desk right now, remembering the moment.)
Since 2004, the Rennie Ellis Archive has been lovingly curated by his longtime assistant and friend Manuela Furci, with assistance from Rennie’s widow Kerry Oldfield. Their ambition was to posthumously realize his dream of having a major retrospective of his work at the National Gallery of Victoria, and I was proud to stand with a vast crowd in that beautiful space in 2008 when it was achieved. This significant collection is now managed by the State Library of Victoria.
In an elegant introduction to Rennie’s posthumously published book, titled Decade, the senior curator of photography at the National Gallery of Victoria, Susan van Wyk, wrote: “One of the attributes that distinguishes Ellis from other photographers of the period is his constant engagement with taking pictures. The many thousands of photographs that Ellis took create the impression that he was everywhere and that he knew everyone. He had an almost uncanny ability to be in the right place when something—big or small, public or private—happened.”
A couple of small examples.
In the late 1970s, my wife and I bought our first home, a humble fisherman’s cottage with a thunderbox “dunny” in the backblocks of Avalon on Sydney’s northern beaches. We hadn’t even met the neighbors when Rennie came to stay. When we returned from buying supplies for dinner, he was walking up the street with his Pentax over his shoulder.
“Hey,” he said. “This is a great street, really interesting people. In fact I’ve been invited for dinner two doors down. Don’t wait up.”
Sometime in the mid 80s, I was in Melbourne working on a project with Rennie when he looked at his watch on a Saturday afternoon and said, “Oh shit, I have to photograph a Greek wedding. Come on, it could be interesting.” We arrived at a reception room, which was garlanded with flowers, just as the beautiful bride took her position at the head of a long table with her new husband. Before they could sit, Colin Hay, the Scottish-born leader of the Aussie band Men at Work, just back from a breakthrough American tour, made his way through the crowd with a guitar in one hand and a bar stool in the other. He sat and played his classic immigrant love song:
Across the sea not yet twenty Sailed our Maria, a man to see Perhaps marry dreams our Maria This was to be eventually for our Maria
Bam! Bam! Bam! Rennie was all over it. Gorgeous bride, adoring and handsome husband, beaming parents, famous rock star, Melbourne’s Greek community swaying to the rhythm, one photographer there to capture the moment. That was his MO.
Rennie always had the last word, as well as the last laugh. So why not here? Uncharacteristically serious when once asked to place a value on his own photography, he responded with a quote from the pioneering American photographer Alfred Stieglitz: “Art or not art, that is immaterial—I continue on my own way, seeking my own truth, ever affirming today.”