Rennie Ellis at the Footy

Rennie Ellis was active as a photographer throughout the 1960s, 70s, 80s and 90s. His photographs, mainly taken in Melbourne and Sydney, are of everyday life: streetscapes, the public enjoying their leisure and of course, watching and doing sport. Ellis is perhaps best known for his photographs of pub, bar and party scenes. He enjoyed photographing people dressed in their finery and having a night out, or day out in town. He photographed people who were looking for attention; those who wanted to be seen – drinking beer, holding a ciggie. Often times his subjects are wearing little. Manuela Furci’s edited volume of Ellis’s work, Decadent (Hardie Grant, 2014) encapsulates Ellis’s taste for the glamorous and hedonistic side of Melbourne (and Sydney) in the 1970s and 80s. Ellis died in 2003, and his archives have been left to the State Library of Victoria (SLV). There are some 15,000 photographs of his, easily accessible in the SLV: happily, for the footy fan, hundreds of these are photos of on-field and off-field action. They cover the lives and activities of the fans, as much as they do the players.

I find Ellis’s photographs to be enchanting for several reasons. In part they remind me of the footy I watched and went to while growing up in suburban Melbourne. The scenes and many of the players are familiar to me. But, also, they are names and places that are ‘just out of touch’. I was old enough to remember and enjoy some of the footy scenes Ellis captured, but not old or experienced enough to be able to put them in any particular social or cultural context. Footy was just footy; one game after another. The naïveté of liking a player for his name only; regardless of whether or not he was any good; the pleasure of throwing torn paper up in the air after seeing one’s team score a goal; the frustration of not being tall enough to see much of the action; the sheer size of the players as they came close to where I stood as they chased a ball by the boundary line; the thrill of running towards a player at the end of the game and giving them a pat-on-the-back. Ellis’s photographs are truly nostalgia inducing.

I feel like a ‘football romantic’. What can be done with this feeling of ‘nostalgia’ and ‘romance’? The good ol days weren’t so good – we know that. The VFL was not only pretty cash strapped, but it was also violent, sexist, homophobic and racist. Footy was a fiefdom of un-reconstructed Aussie-ness. The rough edges of this aspect of footy have been smoothed and the crassness has largely disappeared. The undoing of the structural racism and sexism is underway. But, even if on-field racist abuse of black players has largely disappeared, fans still abuse players from the supposed anonymity of the crowd. As a sociable, blokey white male, Ellis was able to get the trust of his subjects; to be a part of the crowd without coming across as an intruder. He took great shots not just of the trailblazing umpire Glenn James, but also players enjoying the euphoria of becoming a part of a Premiership team. One senses the thrill Ellis got out of being there at such local, yet memorable occasions.

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Rennie Ellis, G.F. Haw d. Nth., 1978, full details, here.

Seeing these photos by Ellis reinforces even more how much has changed over such a short space of time. A division largely marked by the league’s transformation from Victorian to Australian football league. The photographs show the changes in MCG’s stadium architecture, seating arrangements, accessibility; how fans used to queue to enter the stadium; the selling of Records; the kinds of food available; how fans used to be able to decorate the front-row fences of the tiered levels with their own decorations. Fans rather than dressing in official paraphernalia are largely seen to be wearing items that reflect their team’s colours. Some fans carry home-made dolls as amulets to ensure their team’s victory. Ellis photographs fans in their moments of anticipation, apprehension, ecstasy and disappointment. His attendance at countless games facilitated his opportunity to capture the breadth of footy fandom in the late-VFL era.

For the Richmond fan there is much to savour: scenes from the 1970s grand finals, Royce Hart at full-tilt, Jim Jess beneath a Richmond Tigers Esso banner launching a drop punt; players drinking from the 1980 Premiership cup; Kevin Bartlett in full skinny lace-up glory and a bunch of fans partying like they know it isn’t going to happen again for another 37 years. Already, in the 1970s, Ellis was paying attention to practices and cultures of fandom. He saw fandom as an area of play, leisure and recreation; it was fun and rough around the edges. The footy players themselves, with their less-sculpted bodies and shabbier haircuts, were only part-time professionals: ‘characters’ and ‘larrikens’ who would barely be tolerated within the confines of today’s streamlined and thoroughly self-regarding league. The photos show how the fans’ creations which adorn the stadium have given way to advertisements; how home-made merchandise has given way to official merchandise. Yes, the footy romantic persists through blogs, podcasts and specialist merchandise, but such a fan does so from an ever marginalised position.

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“Let’s go hard. It’s going to be a long time between drinks.”

Rennie Ellis, Celebrating Tigers Supporters, 1980, full details, here.

Image at the top of the page: Rennie Ellis, Man standing with table of merchandise, 1986 or 87. Full details, here.

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