Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Max Dupain (1911-1992) - Australian Photographer

Max Dupain was quintessentially Australian, being as Helen Ennis, photography curator and writer, and Senior Lecturer at the Australian National University School of Art, has said 'laconic, disdainful of fuss and flattery'.

His fame today rests in part on his early recording (1930s and 1940s) of an iconic Australian experience - the beach outing. As a break from the contraints of his commercial work, this photography was usually carried out during the week-end - he declared "the best work is always done on holidays".

His career started in the late 1930s , with photographs of Manly, the famous sydney beachside suburb. Dupain experimented with many of the ideas and techniques of 'New Photography', such as unconventional angles, low-angled light sources that unusual shadow patterns, and extreme close-ups.

In this context, you may know of this photographer from perhaps his most famous image - 'The Sunbaker' (1937):

'The Sun Baker' (1937)

Here there is the extreme close-up and the low angle - the camera seems to be on the sand itself.

The figure is made more 'everyman' by his face not being visible. And the image more powerful by there being nothing in frame other than the sunbaker and the sand. The few drops of water on his shoulders and arms, and the sand clinging to his hands, give a dynamic to the shot - he seems to have just come back from a dip in the sea. A dynamic that diminishes the obviously posed quality of the shot and makes it appear a more 'natural' or spontaneous.

A few more beach bloke pics:

'At Newport' (1952)

Again there is a lovely tension between a natural moment caught at the beach and the formal qualities of this pic.

With respect to the latter, there is again the pyramidal structure. The apex is just beyond the head of the guy standing on the wall, with the perpendicular line of his body dividing the triangle in two, a line concluding with the tip of the big toe of the gawky skinny bloke leaning against the wall. This geometric shape has one side bordered by the right arm of the guy facing the camera. With the other side suggested by the line through the tops of the heads of the two women in bathing caps.

'Lifesavers' (1940s)

In this photo, perspective cannot be set up in the usual way - it is a quite featureless landscape. But depth is palpably and simply there in the rescue rope heading to the central vanishing point, properly situated if you image the scene extends out beyond the right hand edge of the frame. And there in the diminishing size of the sequence of lifesaver figures. Compare with 'The Jetty, Walsh Bay, NSW' below.
'The Jetty, Silver Beach NSW' (1952)

'Lifesavers, Maroubra Beach' (1950s)

This last photograph was the result of a Christies Auction impulse - you can just see me in the reflection off the glass! Forensic science would be able to draw out an accurate likeness!

As well as hot guys, the beach of course has heaps of other denizens:

'Nuns on Newport Beach' (1960) - Amazingly and improbably, not Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence!!!

'Icecream at Townsville' (1943)

'Mother & child, Cronulla' (1937)

'Bondi' (1939)

The last image has a delicious element of observation, and of satire! I can feel the lycra clinging uncomfortably, and the need to let the skin breathe. And the vanity of wanting the fabric, unwrinkled, to describe the perfect arc of my butt!

To finish, the sea and sand itself:

'Surge edge' (1940s)

'Sunrise at Newport' (1974)

'Banksias by the Sea' (1939)

'Sand Dunes' (1930s)

For a comprehensive catalogue of Dupain's work, check out the MDAA Photo Archives, a specialist library of photographs of the commercial work of Max Dupain and Associates.


  1. Thanks for pulling together this collection of beautiful photographs. This photographer was new to me.


  2. Thanks - I'm thinking of doing another one sometime on a different subject in his work. Hope you will like it if you come by here again. Cheers. Nick

  3. I love Max Dupain's work!

    The Sun Baker is an image that I have always found strangely erotic and arousing, yet it is not porn.

    You have group a great collection in this post. If you dont mind, I will link to it.....