Exhibition review: Melbourne Out Loud: Life through the lens of Rennie Ellis, State Library Victoria

A photography exhibition that transports a slice of life from the 70s and 80s to State Library Victoria.
‘Melbourne Out Loud: Life through the lens of Rennie Ellis’ installation view at State Library Victoria. Photo: ArtsHub. A large double-channel video screen in a dim gallery space showing two photographic images. The one on the left is of an elderly man sitting beneath the sun topless, and the right is of a figure wearing a green floral dress with a hat covering the head, lying on the sand.

State Library Victoria’s latest exhibition, Melbourne Out Loud: Life through the lens of Rennie Ellis as part of PHOTO2024 International Festival of Photography inherits the layout and exhibiting logic of MIRROR: New views on photography (19 May 2023 to 28 January 2024). A selection of photographs taken by Ellis from Melbourne in the 70s/80s and letters, handwritten notes and exhibition posters are on display, alongside large screens showing videos of more archival material.

Remixes of classic tracks from AC/DC, Madonna, The Rolling Stones, Mo’Ju and more by Melbourne-based DJ Mz Rizk echo throughout the State Library’s spacious Victoria Gallery, reconnecting a generation of people to their heyday, as photos from quintessential Melburnian festivities, protests, beach days, sporting events and icons pop up to the beat.

The charm of Ellis’ photographs lies in a supposed carelessness that aims to capture a moment or a spirit, rather than being constructed to reflect the photographer’s aesthetic or, in some instances, ego. It’s an increasingly treasured attribute in a current visual culture saturated with staged or posed photographic imagery. Here, the weird and wonderful run wild – not the result of curated choices but simply because that’s how Melbourne was.

The exhibition text explains that State Library Victoria holds the largest public collection of Ellis’ photographs, which comes as a surprise considering how few of them are physically on display. While this approach of leaning into video technology is certainly conservation friendly (and here it is topnotch), unlike MIRROR, Melbourne Out Loud feels as if it gives too little in the agency of discovery. With video slides, viewers forgo the choice of what to look at and for how long.

It is during this expanse of time, sitting within one of the Gallery’s sleek video-viewing cubes, that viewers may consider the question of “who’s visible?” for a show that is ‘a celebration of going out, being seen and being yourself’.

Photographs dating from 1968 to 1983 in ‘Melbourne Out Loud: Life through the lens of Rennie Ellis’ at State Library Victoria. Photo: ArtsHub. 15 photographs hung in two rows on a white gallery wall, depicting scenes from protests on the streets to a family at the pool.
Photographs dating from 1968 to 1983 in ‘Melbourne Out Loud: Life through the lens of Rennie Ellis’ at State Library Victoria. Photo: ArtsHub.

In the clusters of photographs that hang in salon style at both ends of the exhibition, what is shown is a predominantly white Australia. This isn’t a criticism of Ellis’ practice per se; he undoubtedly captured the “everyday” Melburnian experience and played a significant role in advocating for photography, but it is a reflection on marketing material that makes too calculated a move to centre the “(cultural) diversity” narrative, when in reality these are fleeting images on video screens.

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But what State Library Victoria has achieved through its continuum of exhibitions in the Victoria Gallery is creating a welcoming and laidback atmosphere that extends the mission of the Library and its accessibility for the community. People lounge in the exhibition, casually tapping their feet and bobbing their heads to the upbeat music, perhaps reminiscing about a time that used to be.

The main exhibition is accompanied by a series of photographs displayed outdoors on the State Library Victoria forecourt. They feature imagery of protests including the Moratorium Protests 1970, Gay Pride Week March 1973, Anti-Nuclear March 1984 and Demonstration for Peace 1991. Also on the forecourt is Malian photographer Malick Sidibé’s The Eye of Bamako, depicting Black joy and the energetic popular culture of 1960s Mali, West Africa.

Melbourne Out Loud: Life through the lens of Rennie Ellis is on view at State Library Victoria until 28 January 2025; free.

Celina Lei is an arts writer and editor at ArtsHub. She acquired her M.A in Art, Law and Business in New York with a B.A. in Art History and Philosophy from the University of Melbourne. She has previously worked across global art hubs in Beijing, Hong Kong and New York in both the commercial art sector and art criticism. She took part in drafting NAVA’s revised Code of Practice - Art Fairs and was the project manager of ArtsHub’s diverse writers initiative, Amplify Collective. Celina is based in Naarm/Melbourne.