In the age of the selfie, can anyone deny that photography is show-biz?
This year’s Head On Photo Festival is in November, the same month in which two photographers were born, two decades apart: Rennie Ellis, on the 11th November, 1940; and Tracey Moffatt AO on the 12th November, 1960. An exhibitionist tendency triggers and sustains the output of both artists, in one case documentary, performative in the other.
Ellis was born in the midst of World War Two, and died in 2003. Read about him or dig out his photographs — the National Library gives access to 12,400 of them — and you’ll quickly see him called a ‘society photographer’, his snappy pix of parties, openings, launches cramming the pages of Ragtimes and POL magazines. Thus he made his living until 1982 when his photo books really took off. Eventually, there were 23 of them, using a successful ‘series’ formula: Life’s a beach, Life’s a beer, …a ball, ...a parade… People at the footy, at the beach, in the pub, nightclub or cafe enjoying the Australian ‘high low-life’.
Can we take Ellis seriously as an art photographer when it seems, from such breezy titles, that this notorious larrikin did not? In their foreword to Decadent: 1980-2000, Manuela Furci, William Yang and Robert McFarlane pin him as a photographer in search of hedonism. Omitted from that retrospective was an earlier Ellis book, Kings Cross Sydney: A Personal Look at the Cross, made in 1971 with Wesley Stacey.
Ellis ventured daily into chance human encounters, and nowhere else in Australia had such a dense, excited congregation of people as the Cross. Mining its culture, exposing its demi-monde, the book’s layout crushes a riot of impressions gathered in the clubs, out on the main strip, among the back street terraces. Hippies mixing with sleazy ‘businessmen’, American sailors taking shore leave, old matrons nursing their Pekinese while mums shops with kids in tow.
Drag queen Carlotta on the garish cover promises glitz and glam, but inside the gloss rubs thin as Ellis mercilessly exposes clichés of the strip-club scene: the rapacious toothy grimace under the walrus moustache of the MC in butterfly bow-tie and mutton-chops; the bored, weary expression of the dancer in leopard-skin underclothes pulling off her top, desultorily impersonating the pin-ups behind. His presence of mind in rubbing these two faces together is genius, bracketed as they are by the tawdry glare of fluorescent light — hell to work around for an average photographer, but for Ellis, a flourish.
Ellis’s own show-biz venture in 1972 was Brummels, the country’s first privately run gallery (with Robert Ashton) devoted to Australian photography. Openings were legend; for one, Polaroid supplied cameras, film packs and champagne as invitees pinned their pictures on the wall, creating an instant exhibition that included the empties strewn on the floor.
But by comparing Ellis’s work with a Tracey Moffatt picture, one might question the apparently documentary image; present in the room as well as the two protagonists, whose power dynamics are already imbalanced, is the male photographer. Is it at his direction that the woman is removing her clothes?
Tracey Moffatt, Mother's Reply, 1976, 1999 from the series Scarred For Life II. Courtesy of the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney
At the Head On Photo Festival 2011, Moffatt’s earlier series Scarred for Life was presented alongside works by Destiny Deacon and others. Moffatt’s purpose always, like Ellis’s, is to tell a story. She pairs the tableau with its written account and, as with his work, what results is all about power relations and body image. The text is in past tense, as all photographs are, yet this picture is effectively in the future perfect; the actors are not the actual protagonists, but we believe this will have happened somewhere, sometime.
Here the weaker party has the foreground. Again, two faces meet. The girl, whose pose seen frontally is that of dignified self-appraisal, in the mirror appears to physically cringe at her mother’s put-down. So do we.
Gael Newton in 1995 identified Tracey Moffatt as “one of a remarkable generation of women” who, when she graduated from Queensland College of Art in 1982, “announced [her] presence with confident, stylish and attention-seeking works” — not a description from which self-defined feminist Moffatt would shy. Consider Moffatt's Under the Sign of Scorpio (2005), 40 self-portraits as women born under that sign.
Foster child of a white family, she brushes off identification as an ‘Aboriginal artist’. But race and violence are never far from her, as her short film The White Ghosts Sailed In of 2017 vividly attests. Another work, Invocation (2000), follows a mythological thread into her own indigenous ancestry, but ramps up the cinematic tension with reference to Hitchcock’s The Birds - and a medley drawn from TV, ingested in her suburban Queensland childhood, with which she so identified as to act its starring female role, as in so many of her productions.
That pop influence can apply to any of Moffatt’s photography or cinema, as reflected in the movie poster aesthetic of this series, a genre in which imagery that refers to the film narrative constructs a scene that does not appear in the movie. We’re left to invoke our own script for Invocation too. The work employs complex photomontage for which she collaborated with a screen-printer to create a palette alien to conventional photography. The glossy buildup of ink layers looks simultaneously painterly and photographic. The title of the series refers to the act of conjuration and incantation but what it entails here, set in a stark outback of vivid Drysdale hues and Schepisi tensions, is fearful, portentous and epic.
Something intriguingly ‘off’ in Moffat’s artistry troubled Adrian Searle in reviewing her angsty gangsta Passage in her 2017 Venice Biennale show My Horizon. But it is deliberate, a sign of defiant, vaunting originality.
In On Photography, Susan Sontag notes, “Photographs create the beautiful and — over generations of picture-taking — use it up…The image-surfeited are likely to find sunsets corny; they now look, alas, too much like photographs." She might have acknowledged that it is true of all media; Sunday painters have devalued still life, the old boots à la Van Gogh for example, as much as amateur photographers have sunsets.
Yet an artist like Moffatt, whom Bruce James sees as a 'painter manqué', can make sunsets in her Adventure Series electrifyingly kitsch and grotesque, at the same time emotionally overheated – reviving the pathos of sunsets absent from them since Van Gogh’s Sower. Here the sexual dynamics, a Days of Our Lives melodrama, are in Moffatt’s power. All of her work consummately preserves the same high blood pressure.
Two generations apart, the practices of Ellis and Moffatt occupy eras either side of the postmodern driven by second-wave feminism, but on one thing they would certainly agree: the value of shameless extroversion.
Header image: Ellis Rennie with camera, 1974, by Bob Bourne. Courtesy Rennie Ellis Photographic Archive
About the author
James McArdle is an artist and researcher. A retired Associate Professor in the Image: Photography/Graphics, Deakin University, he writes the live blog On this date in photography.
Tracey Moffatt AO