For late Australian photographer Max Dupain OBE (1911 - 1992), the two things that mattered most were the idea and the light. What came up on a print, he conceded, was out of his control.
Max Dupain valued the emotional engagement with his subjects but insisted that, ultimately, it all had to come from within. “That’s where it must start,” he once said. “There comes a correlation between the feeling and something seen. Your heart leaps up and there is born instantly a sympathetic give and take between the idea and the reality.” His refined documentary style of photography reflects the intense deference he felt for his home country. INPRINT is honoured to have featured a folio of the late photographers work as our featured artist from issue 9.
“Sensitivity, piercing awareness, emotional and intellectual involvement, [and] self-discipline are some of the elements which create that rapport with the subject, be it a rock or a woman or a woman on a rock.”
Max Dupain was a prolific photographer. Born in Sydney in 1911, he began taking photos as a teenager when he received a Box Brownie in 1924, and continued right up until his death in 1992, creating black and white records of the world as he saw it, with a refinement and vividness that not only points to his modernist sensibility but also sets his work apart.
His career started in 1930 in the studio of prominent Sydney photographer Cecil Bostock. He became acquainted with the work of Man Ray and other European modernists, inspiring him to experiment with solarisation in his own practice and eventually open his first studio in 1934 on Bond Street. In the 1950s, his love of architecture photography flourished (he once considered becoming an architect himself if it weren’t for the maths and science of it all) and in 1978, on one of his rare excursions overseas, he travelled to Paris to photograph the new Australian Embassy designed by his friend Harry Seidler, the architect credited with bringing modernist architecture to Australia. In 1982, ten years before he died, he was given an OBE in the New Year Honours list for his contribution to photography.
Dupain was at once serious and self-referential. He spoke about his work — and himself more generally — in a matter-of-fact and unpretentious way. “Way back I was dubbed a romantic,” he wrote. “I know enough about myself [now] to realise its truth.” Jill White, who worked for Dupain for nearly 25 years and became a photographer in her own right, remembers him as dedicated and hard working. “He devoted most of his time, weekends included, to his photography,” she told INPRINT via email. “He was devoted to his own backyard and didn’t see any reason for travelling huge distances to take photographs — it was all here for him.”
Dupain’s still lifes and landscapes, with their inky blacks and solar whites, see flowers as celestial beings suspended in an imaginary night sky; Cronulla sand-hills untouched and perfectly formed as though they only exist in someone’s mind; and the Sydney Harbour Bridge, quiet and contemplative, clouded in morning mist. His personal work is introspective and thoughtful. It reflects not only the reverence with which he held the natural environment but also his predilection for solitude. He was married twice, first in 1939 to fellow photographer Olive Cotton, and then to social worker Diana Illingworth in 1949, with whom he had a daughter, Danina, and a son, Rex.
His most famous photograph, Sunbaker, depicts (as the name suggests) a man sunbaking: a relaxed right hand and a sturdy left forearm meeting on the sand and sculpted shoulders like two peaks on a horizon. The photograph gained recognition nearly 40 years later in 1975 when it was printed for an Australian Centre for Photography retrospective, and has been widely regarded as a quintessentially Australian image — this bronzed, masculine figure is carefree and at home on the sand. But this version of the image was not Dupain’s favourite; the negative of his first preference was lost and only one original print survives (currently with the NSW State Library). That one conveys a more withdrawn emotion; the sunbaker’s arms are tensed, his right hand clasped around his left wrist forming what Dupain’s son Rex would later describe as a more “embryonic” pose.
Learning that Dupain preferred this other version of Sunbaker helps us to understand him as an artist, and by looking further into his personal archives we see a fuller picture of the way he saw the world. It wasn’t social connection that galvanised him but the abstract relationships he formed with his subjects. As he told art historian Gael Newton in a 1980 biographical monograph, “Sensitivity, piercing awareness, emotional and intellectual involvement, [and] self-discipline are some of the elements which create that rapport with the subject, be it a rock or a woman or a woman on a rock.” For Dupain, the idea behind an image was paramount.
"He was devoted to his own backyard and didn’t see any reason for travelling huge distances to take photographs — it was all here for him."
He later wrote that if his work was to be of any consequence in his life and to the world, it needed to be about the place he was from. “[It] has to be devoted to that place where I have been born, reared and worked, thought, philosophised and made pictures to the best of my ability. And that’s all I need.” Including Dupain’s work in this edition of INPRINT, which is otherwise filled with colour, is our editor’s method of punctuation. Through Dupain’s work, we invite you to pause for a moment, to stop, breathe and consider the place you are from and the place you are now. How do you picture your world?