Rick Ellis revisits past ghosts in ‘Shadows of Union Station’

The photography exhibit, which features rarely seen images taken in and around Columbus in the late 1960s and early ’70s, opens at Secret Studio today (Friday, March 8.)
The former Union Station in downtown Columbus
The former Union Station in downtown ColumbusRick Ellis

There were two experiences that led Rick Ellis to pursue a career in journalism as a younger man.

The first occurred during Ellis’ sophomore year at East High School in the late 1960s, when a Black student at nearby Mifflin High School received excessive punishment from the administration for his role in a fight with a white student. In response, members of the Black community, including Ellis, turned up at a scheduled Board of Education meeting to voice their displeasure. The board listened to these concerns, promises were made, and the crowd dispersed.

“Then some of the younger kids, basically from junior high schools, went downtown and threw rocks through some windows,” Ellis said. “And it was like Lazarus [department store] lost two windows, but The Dispatch comes out the next day and says it was a fucking riot. And I read that and said, ‘I was there. That’s not what happened. That’s not at all what happened.’ And I realized in that moment you can’t believe everything you read, but also how powerful journalism could be.” 

The second experience occurred not long after, at a time when Ellis regularly traded letters with his older brother, who was enlisted in the military during the Vietnam War. A member of the Army’s Quartermasters Corp., Ellis' brother found himself unexpectedly engaged in a firefight during the siege of Khe Sanh after Vietnamese fighters blew up the plane on which he flew in. “And he was there for the entire duration of the siege. They gave him a gun and said, ‘Hey, you know how to use this, right?’” said Ellis, who then recalled the outsized impact wartime photographs published in newspapers and magazines had on public perception as the conflict stretched on. “I didn’t want to fight, but I was willing to go [to Vietnam] as a photojournalist. I wanted to be a foreign correspondent. I wanted to work for Newsweek.”

Collectively, these experiences led Ellis to pursue journalism both as a writer and a photographer at Ohio State, where he worked for student newspapers The Lantern and Our Choking Times, a Black-run (and now-defunct) publication. Nearly 50 photographs taken during these years appear in a new exhibit of Ellis’ work opening at Secret Studio today (Friday, March 8), ranging from student candids to a stunning series shot at Union Station, which Ellis said was in the process of being demolished to make way for the Nationwide building downtown.

“Nationwide tower was almost completed, and I got pictures of it shooting through the dilapidated walls [of Union Station],” said Ellis, who captured all of the images on a Minolta SR-T 101, which he still owns and had with him as we chatted at Secret Studio in early March. “Walking in there, it was like, wow, this is so fantastic. The number of ghosts that are here. The spirit of the place. The architecture.”

In the day he spent inside the station taking photographs, Ellis also happened upon a trio of longtime engineers who were set to retire following one final run. As Ellis captured a portrait of the men – an image also included in the exhibit – the three regaled him with tales of their years on the job, spinning these everyday details into a vivid slice of life picture.

During the years Ellis worked as a student journalist, he gravitated toward these types of stories, recalling the time he covered the Indianapolis 500 for The Lantern and focused his story not on the race but on the characters who surrounded him in the grandstands, including the man in front of him who continued to cheer for his favorite racer, Mario Andretti, even after a blown engine evicted the driver from the field.

A candid portrait of a man on a bench
A candid portrait of a man on a benchRick Ellis

Dubbed “Shadows of Union Station: Snapshots of Columbus’ Past,” the Secret Studio exhibit largely reflects this approach, featuring a couple big names (former President Jimmy Carter, for one) but more often dwelling on the everyday folks who populated the OSU campus and the city as a whole. It’s also the first time most of these photos have been displayed publicly, with Ellis having stashed them away decades ago when he left journalism to pursue a career in media relations after starting a family, compelled by a job offer that doubled his salary to $14,000. “I sold out to the Dark Side, man,” Ellis said, and laughed. “Darth Vader came by and said, ‘Who will come with me?’ And I said, ‘Yes, sir! 14k?!’”

It’s possible the photographs would have remained hidden away had Ellis not had a heart attack and double bypass surgery last year, after which he returned to Columbus from where he was living in Boston, taking up temporary residence with his sister, who works as a nurse, at her home in Dublin. Owing to the sudden nature of the move, Ellis’ children, Alex and Jesse, were left to pack up their father’s Boston residence, sorting through his belongings to determine what might be needed in Ohio and what could be placed into storage.

“And we were all hanging out, and [Jesse] came out and was like, ‘Do you remember these?’ And he had the photos, which I had totally forgotten,” Ellis said. “And I realized they were mine, and that I had taken them. And now that you mention it, I can remember the time that I took them. … Going through them, all of this stuff comes back to you.”

And what memories, too. In our short time together, Ellis shared stories about everything from his years working in media relations for the attorney general, and how he would lead journalists to the sites of unfolding drug busts, to the college visits the staff of Our Choking Times received from the FBI, related to a North Korean newspaper that arrived unsolicited each month in the newsroom. “And they were like, ‘Why are you guys getting this communication?’” Ellis said. “And I was like, ‘You tell me!’ We didn’t send for it. I mean, c’mon, give me a break. What are we, fools?’”

Ellis also shared some of those quieter family moments that led him to leave journalism, a career move about which he had no regret. Besides, his trusted Minolta continued to have life, though more often in the hands of his wife, who captured beautiful portraits of the couple’s children throughout their early years. “So, at least the equipment didn’t go to waste,” said Ellis, who continues to be floored by the renewed interest in his work. “When I heard there was a gallery that wanted to display it, you could have knocked me over with a feather. … I was surprised. And I’m humbled that people might actually come out and look at them.”

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