UMA’s tribute to John Ellis, Activist Archivist Photographer

Deputy University Archivist Sue Fairbanks attended the Memorial for John Ellis in Geelong, Sunday 11 August.

Sue’s Tribute.

John Ellis at the exhibition launch for
Protest! Archives from the University of Melbourne,
Leigh Scott Gallery, Baillieu Library,
20 February 2013,
Photographer: Michael Silver

I first met John Ellis in 1991 when I was the newly appointed Labour Archivist at the University of Melbourne Archives (UMA). One of my first projects was to negotiate the purchase of John’s photographs of the peace and protest movements in Melbourne from the 1970s on. Over the next 30 years I came to understand how constant and deep John’s dedication to the peace and left movements was. He was the best example of an Activist Archivist – he was both a participant and documenter for nearly 50 years.

The legacy of his activism at UMA dates from the early 1990s. We now hold 10 acquisitions from him – 3 tranches of his photo collection; his poster collection; 2 of his exhibitions; his early participation in the Moorabbin Peace Action Committee; and his activism through music, one of his other great passions.  He also encouraged other organisations to preserve and deposit their records. Thanks to him and Romina Beitseen we hold the second tranche of the records of the Committee for International Cooperation and Disarmament (CICD); the International Bookshop; and the Eureka Youth League.

John and his great comrade, Les Dalton, volunteered at the UMA for many years. Les catalogued the records of the peace movement and the Peace Parsons such as the Rev. Alf Dickie. John’s speciality, of course, was photography and he photographed his way through his own the poster collection and those of the Victorian Trades Hall Council, the CICD, and the Communist Party of Australia. John also knew the importance of celebrating the achievements of the people who participated in the peace and left movements with him. He held the ‘Stand up’ exhibition in 1998 which subsequently toured through nine galleries to 2004. His ‘Speak Out’ exhibition at the Brunswick Town Hall in 2006 was a collaboration with the UMA. His last exhibition was on activism in Queenscliff.

When John moved to Queenscliff, we joked that he was retiring from his retirement. Of course, he did no such thing. I remember visiting John and his partner Dianne when I was 7 months pregnant with my twins. We discussed and set up a database for him to catalogue his photos into. My twin daughters are now 18 years old – that is another 18 years of Activist Archivism for John and Dianne. During these years John wanted his work to continue and passed the baton for photographing left events to Peter Love: he has entrusted Dianne with depositing more of his legacy with the UMA. But maybe it will take a village of Activist Archivists to replace John and his dedication. UMA owes John a huge debt of gratitude.

I give my condolences and those of the UMA to Dianne and John’s family. Rest in Peace John.

Sue Fairbanks

Deputy Archivist,

University of Melbourne Archives


One Response to “UMA’s tribute to John Ellis, Activist Archivist Photographer”

  1. Sheena Daykin says:

    Hi Sue, great to see that you are still at the University Archives. It was many moons ago, with Frank, Mark, Cec, Maryanne and you. Cheers to you and your family. Sheena Daykin at Mansfield, Victoria

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