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Ellis reveals Cross’ brutal honesty

Photo: Rennie Ellis, courtesy of the State Library of NSW

The changing face of Kings Cross will be on show next week with a new Rennie Ellis exhibition at the State Library of New South Wales.

A renowned photographer for over three decades, Mr Ellis’ photographs of Kings Cross in 1970-71 exposed the gritty underbelly of the Cross through a series of touching monochrome prints.

Fresh off the heels of a new posthumously published book by Mr Ellis, his ability to capture the hedonistic nature of Kings Cross life is still celebrated years after his death in 2003.

“It’s fair to say that Rennie always wanted to be in the action and he was never one of these disinterested observers, he always wanted to be part of it – the scene or whatever it might have been,” said the State Library’s Curator of Photographs, Alan Davies.

“The good thing about him was he didn’t have any qualms about going up and taking pictures and chatting his way out of problems – he wasn’t a photographer with a telephoto lens from afar. He had that personality that enabled him to get very [natural] images.”

Against the backdrop of Kieran Loveridge’s sentencing relating to the death of teenager Thomas Kelly in Kings Cross last year, the exhibition is a poignant juxtaposition to today’s Cross. The State Library’s description of the exhibition harks back to a complex history.

“Servicemen from Vietnam were enjoying R&R breaks, immigrants opened new coffee shops and restaurants on a daily basis, and young people from the suburbs mingled with drug addicts and prostitutes,” Mr Davies said.

“That period in Sydney in the early ‘70s when the R&R was going on, the American servicemen were here it was all bright lights and at the same time fairly gritty underbelly stuff – I think that was a magnet to someone like Rennie.

“It’s an era that’s gone, the R&R sort of madness with lots of American servicemen with a lot of money and lots of people willing to take it off them is gone, but at the same time, you look at the images and see that grittiness that Rennie showed, it’s still there – you can go down the Cross and see some pretty grim areas.”

While the Vietnam War is long gone and clubs dominate the Cross, Mr Ellis’ photography maintains the brutal honesty about the Cross’ sordid history with drugs and sex.

It is a place where the main characters are those internalised from Underbelly, yet it is also a place with subtle a cultural history – the idiosyncrasies of which shine through in Mr Ellis’ work.

As debate rages over the regulation of Kings Cross nightlife and the social ramifications of alcohol abuse, Mr Ellis’ photographs provide an alternative glimpse into the Cross’ history.

The exhibition runs from November 16 until February of next year.

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