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What The Hell Happened

Rennie Ellis was an extraordinary photographer who took pictures from the centre of the scenes he was a part of for almost four decades.

by Briony Wright
Apr 2 2008, 12:00am


Rennie Ellis was an extraordinary photographer who took pictures from the centre of the scenes he was a part of for almost four decades. His passion for life and relentless interest in people drove his work and he spent his time travelling around Australia and the rest of the world taking candid photographs of everything that inspired him. As a photojournalist, when it came to fashion, Rennie felt compelled to record what was going on backstage, as well as in front of the curtain, which is why his photos give such perfectly formed, honest glimpses into the past. For most of his career, Rennie worked from a studio on Greville St in Prahran, where a lot of his work sat unseen and filling up boxes around him. Sadly, he died a few years ago and it’s only since then that the full extent of his treasure trove of work has been uncovered.

Rennie wrote and shot for the influential 70s fashion monthly, Ragtimes, and he’s been credited with taking the first candid street-fashion style shots—so you have him to blame for their omnipresence these days. Looking at Rennie’s pictures, more than anything, we wanted to know what was happening when they were taken, so Rennie’s old friend Jenny Bannister helped fill in the gaps.

Vice: You’re in quite a few of Rennie’s pictures—they look like good times. How do you remember Rennie from those days?

Well Rennie discovered my sister and I at a party in 1976. I believe it was a gay party in Carlton. They used to have the best parties because they were all coming out of the closet and going crazy dressing up in drag—just having the best time. We got into the scene because we were friends with Clarence Chai who was gay. Rennie came up to us and asked if he could do a fashion shoot because he knew that I made clothes and my sister was a model and so we did a shoot for Ragtimes. Rennie was always taking pictures, always at the right parties and it helped that all the rich socialites and ladies really liked him too.

Where did you guys party back then?

Well, there were all the clubs, like Sheiks in the city and Inflation on King St, but I was more into live bands—I’d go to see Nick Cave, The Boys Next Door, The Church, The Models and The Saints at the Crystal Ball Room in St Kilda or the Tiger Room in Richmond. I spent my life between these two venues. I guess we were all just basically into punk in the late 70s.

So there was a really healthy scene in Melbourne back then?

It was so much fun—quite different to now. We were just crazy and creative and there were always amazing parades and parties where everyone would go all out.

You were part of a group of designers and artists, many of whom have gone on to be really successful. There’s Martin Grant, Alannah Hill, Fiona Scanlan, yourself and the Liano sisters to name only a few.

It felt like everyone was doing something amazing. Some of us were making clothes, others were collecting them, people like Clarence Chai and Taylor Wu were opening incredible stores where we could sell our designs and Rennie was always there with his camera. Alannah Hill came over from Tasmania when she was 15, with $20 in her pocket, and was taken in by the people behind Indigo. She worked there for something like 15 years before starting her own label.

And Martin Grant is now a famous designer based in Paris?

Yes, he was originally from Blackburn in Melbourne’s suburbs, and started making clothes when he was about 16. He was definitely going to nightclubs underage. He made beautiful girls clothes, which had a bit of a Victorian influence. Everybody had something special by Martin Grant. One of his signature pieces was a big shirt with a horizontal slit in the back across the shoulders—everyone had one of those. His grandmother taught him how to make clothes and next thing we knew he was the darling of Vogue.

Thanks to Rennie’s pictures we have an important visual diary of Australia in the 70s and 80s during a time before internet and digital cameras—a moment before the cult of the social photographer I guess.

Absolutely. The thing with Rennie was that he was always having fun and would never miss an opportunity to take a photo. I remember being at Rennie’s 38th birthday in Prahran when the police turned up for a noise compliant. We were all pretty smashed and our natural reaction was to stop and be quiet.

Not Rennie though. We saw him take a girl outside and start taking pictures of her sitting on the police car. He just wanted to get that shot. And, from what I can recall, the police stuck around for a few drinks too. That’s how people reacted to Rennie—everyone just instinctively felt comfortable around him.

Thanks to Manuela Furci and Kerry Oldfield Ellis from the Rennie Ellis Photographic Archive. Look out for the NGV retrospective of Rennie’s work later in the year and go to to see more.

Alannah Hill, Pussy & Robert, Exhibitionists Parade 1984. (All photos © Rennie Ellis, courtesy of the Rennie Ellis Photographic Archive.)
Jenny Bannister: “Pussy (left) is a big collector of clothes and Robert (right) had a “tat” store on Greville St in the 70s. Tat was what they called vintage or second hand clothing back then.”

Leopard Leotards, Taylor Wu Parade 1980

Chai Parade, Chasers #1, 1980.

Clarence Chai & Jenny Bannister, Shieks Disco 1981 “Shieks Disco was a basement club in the city—where the Sportsgirl Centre is built. This was taken at a Johy Morey (one of the most exciting hair dressers at the time) hair show where Jenny Bannister was dressing the models.”   Wendy Bannister 1978
“Jenny Bannister’s sister was signed to the same modelling agency in London as Jerry Hall. Her nick name was Baby Jerry.”

On the Catwalk, Taylor Wu Parade, 1980

Le Louvre Parade, Chasers, Melbourne 1979.

Martin Grant & Flasher #2 Circa 1984. “A very young Martin Grant holding a very old can of VB.”

Security Guard Backstage Circa 1985